Movie Review

Paris 36

An awkward exercise in nostalgia, French style

Kad Merad (left), Gérard Jugnot, and Nora Arnezeder in Christophe Barratier's ''Paris 36.'' Kad Merad (left), Gérard Jugnot, and Nora Arnezeder in Christophe Barratier's ''Paris 36.'' (Jeremie bouilon/sony pictures classics)
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2009
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In the faux world of "Paris 36," the blue-collar residents of a Paris suburb may be out of work. They may be caught in a power play amid communists, socialists, and fascists. But our plucky common men and women sing, they dance. They love their neighborhood music hall, the Chansonia, and will do anything to ensure its vaudeville tradition won't end.

In short, the financial crisis and social upheaval of 1930s France never looked so appealing.

Writer-director Christophe Barratier's paint-by-numbers script uses a mile-wide brush. He dabs some gangster/good guy/gorgeous gal love triangle subplot here, slathers a father-separated-from-son sob story line there, and spatters it all with a show-must-go-on scenario, French style. Will the resourceful crew - theater manager Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), wannabe labor rights leader Milou (Clovis Cornillac, from "A Very Long Engagement"), bad comic Jacky (Kad Merad), and chanteuse Douce (newcomer Nora Arnezeder) - succeed in reviving their beloved theater? You bet your baguette and vin rouge. In the clumsy hands of Barratier, whose last film, "The Chorus," irked many as maudlin, "Paris 36" becomes a mostly pointless exercise in nostalgia.

"Paris 36" commits further crimes. Sets designed by Jean Rabasse ("City of Lost Children") may be technically impressive, but they're an airbrushed, toy version of a humble faubourg, or neighborhood, just outside Paris's old city walls. (The film's original title is "Faubourg 36.") In fact, most filming took place in the Czech Republic on a completely artificial set.

On the plus side, the period costumes are impeccable, and several musical numbers are fun. Frequent Clint Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern gives "Paris 36" the desaturated palate of his work on "Mystic River" and "Flags of Our Fathers." And a few glimpses of original emotion shine through the gauze. When Jacky is forced to perform an anti-Semitic comedy routine, we feel his complex reaction: shame and humiliation, but also the thrill of playing to a packed house that loves his shtick.

Perhaps "Paris 36" is meant to be a throwback to such classic French films as Marcel Carné's "Children of Paradise" and René Clair's "Under the Roofs of Paris." But most viewers will find the film the stepchild of "Cinema Paradiso," "The Triplets of Belleville," and "Moulin Rouge." Not such pretty offspring.

PARIS 36 Directed by: Christophe Barratier

Starring: Gérard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder

Running time: 121 minutes

In French with English subtitles

Rated: PG-13 (some nudity)