In a working-class district in the north of Paris, theatre manager, Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), loses his wife, his music hall and the affections of his son but hope is on the horizon in the form of Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful young starlet with talent and kind heart.
A rich mix of musical, comedy, drama and romance set in a turbulent period of French history, Paris 36 offers a galaxy of diverse characters and many stirring moments.
But the dramatic momentum is weakened by writer-director Christophe Barratier’s irritating habit of interrupting the narrative by cutting to yet another song or music hall routine. As a result, the potential for a greater emotional impact is lost.
The title refers to 1936, when the left-wing Popular Front alliance of Léon Blum came to power, sparking industrial unrest and fermenting the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism.
All this takes its toll on Germain Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot) when the Chansonia theatre, where he’d worked for 36 years, is closed by the neighbourhood crime boss Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), his dancer wife leaves him for a fellow performer, and he loses custody and all contact with his beloved son Jojo (Maxence Perrin).
Pigoil joins forces with comedian/impressionist Jacky Jacquet (Kad Merad) and young political firebrand Emile \"Milou\" Leibovich (Clovis Cornillac) to reopen the theatre in an uneasy partnership with Galapiat. After a disastrous opening, the joint gets a boost with the arrival of sexy young chantoosie Douce (stunning newcomer Nora Arnezeder). Galapiat has designs on Douce, who is attracted to the brash Milou.
There are some poignant moments, particularly in the heartache Pigoil endures without his son, and in a sub-plot involving Douce and a character named Max (Pierre Richard), who’s known as the Radio Man because he’s spent 20 years in his flat, with only the radio for company, until he ends his self-imposed exile. But too often, just as the tension builds, Barratier throws the switch to vaudeville.
Jugnot, who starred in the director’s 2004 hit Les Choristes, gives the movie its heart and soul. We know from the opening scene that he’s accused of murder, but his victim and the circumstances are unclear until the final denouement. Merad is hysterically funny as possibly the world’s worst impressionist, who temporarily aligns himself with Galapiat’s Fascist movement. In just her second film role after Les Deux Mondes, Arnezeder is a stand-out with a wonderful voice and looks to die for. Donnadieu is suitably menacing as Galapiat, while Cornillac exudes charisma as the ladies’ man/political agitator.
There are echoes here of Moulin Rouge!, although this film is far less pretentious or self-consciously 'arty," and the characters are far more believable. There are some marvelous songs by Reinhardt Wagner and Frank Thomas, and a knock-out production number that would have been right at home in an MGM musical.
The film drips with clichés — guys sporting berets and droopy moustaches, accordions tinkling away, shots of the Eiffel Tower — but that’s forgivable in a homage to some of the great French films of the 1930s and ’40s. The muted vintage look comes from Tom Stern, the cinematographer who gave most of Clint Eastwood’s recent films their sombre tones. The sets are sumptuous, shot in Paris and at three Prague studios.