By Anthony Buchanan
The glittery, nostalgic representations of glamorous Paris that have graced our screens for the last decade have definitely run their course. The stylized Moulin Rouge! and the idiosyncratically quirky Amélie pull it off, but most don’t. Paris 36, a shamefully grandiose and dishwater-thin slice of Parisian life, is definitely in the latter category. Tightly packed with subplots, the film is a pastiche of emotionally void scenes, few of which last longer than 90 seconds or go any deeper than the lukewarm surface.
The story is typical: A theatre in 1936 Paris is about to be bought out by a sly and wicked magnate until the underdogs rise up and attempt to run the enterprise without money. As the film opens, we find lovable old Parisian stagehand Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot, with that stereotypical French pudginess and charm) arrested for murder. An inspector asks what happened. Pigoil begins to remember, and we plunge into a world of sentimental music and hasty melodrama.
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s commanding villain, Galapiat, is threatening to buy out the Chansonia Music Hall, where Pigoil has worked faithfully for years. The plot then races through Pigoil’s relationship with his music-loving son JoJo (Maxence Perrin); just enough time is spent on him to let us know he exists. Then comes the political upheaval of left-wing workers fighting anti-Semitism as a romantic backdrop to the action. A love interest is sparked when the cause’s hard-ass Jewish leader meets the delectable Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a talented addition to the struggling music hall group who is also insidious Galapiat’s object of desire.
The rapid ending makes Paris 36 feel as if the filmmakers came down off a high, suddenly remembered the film wasn’t finished and hammered it out quickly so they could crash for the night.
Paris 36 wants desperately to be a musical, and part of its failure is this struggle. Director Christophe Barratier, who always claims his actors’ environment and comfort are priority, shows them here racing about in a theatrical frenzy, rarely allowing them enough screen time to express emotional depth. The theatrically trained Barratier swings back and forth between an aching desire to convert the film into a musical and to force as much French fetish onto the audience as possible. Sweeping cameras and over-stylized street scenes bombard us constantly. Every shot, bursting to the brim in epic cinematics, is meant to leave us in awe. Instead, the pretentious wide-angle shots and overwrought color saturations just get tiring. Real fast.
What Barratier ended up with is a racy story dripping with gaudy cinematography, over-glamorous sets and tired Dickensian sentimentality. The nostalgia is so intense it borders on kitsch. Paris 36 is like a two-hour version of the fetishy French posters that advertise wine and fashion. Parisian for Parisian’s sake—maybe great for wall decorations, but doesn’t cut it for the cinema.
Directed by Christophe Barratier
Written by Mr. Barratier and Julien Rappeneau, based on an concept by Frank Thomas
With Gérard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Pierre Richard, Maxence Perrin and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu
120 min., PG-13