Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.7.09


Imaginary Neighborhood with Reasonable Charm
Paris 36 slight but enjoyable
by Molly Templeton

PARIS 36 (FAUBERG 36): Directed by Christophe Barratier. Written by Barratier and Julien Rappeneau, based on an idea by Frank Thomas, Jean-Michele Derenne and Reinhardt Wagner. Music, Reinhardt Wagner. Lyrics, Frank Thomas. Starring Gérard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and Maxence Perrin. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. PG-13 120 minutes.

Kad Merad, Gérard Jugnot and Nora Arnezeder in Paris 36

Christophe Barratier’s Paris 36 takes place in an imagined Paris district in the sping of 1936 — a tumultuous time, not least for the former employees of the Chansonia, a neighborhood theater closed by its nasty landlord at the turn of the year. The political landscape is changing, but times are particularly bad for Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), who had worked at the theater for 30 years. His job is gone, and so is his accordion-playing son, taken to the country by his cheating mother and her new fella.

Pigoil is Paris 36’s center, the person around whom a colorful group of neighborhood personalities revolve. He’s an everyman sort of guy, a disappointed, unambitious fellow who nonetheless finds the resolve to reopen the Chansonia with a ragtag collection of unemployed folks, including Milou (Clovis Cornillac), who used to spend his time encouraging factory workers to go on strike, and Jacky (Kad Merad), the Chansonia’s former sandwich-board man turned would-be “Prince of Imitators.” The turning point for them all is the arrival of Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a fresh-faced, small-town beauty harboring dreams of being a star in Paris. Her talent turns things around; her history changes everyone’s lives even further.

For the most part, Paris 36 is sweet and slight, beautifully shot by Clint Eastwood’s frequent cinematographer Tom Stern, who pulls beauty out of barely lit scenes with remarkable frequency. It lures you into the backstage world of the theater with a long shot that swoops from the city outside, through the theater, and right up to Pigoil, behind the scenes, doing the job he’s done for so long. While packing in troubled romance, longtime friendships, the details of life in the neighborhood and the efforts to reopen the theater, the film also glances at the pre-WWII political situation in the neighborhood: Milou helps Pigoil’s son escape a a broken-up factory strike, and Jacky finds his principles tested when theater owner Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) offers to help with his career — if Jacky will just do a bit of entertaining for his right-wing group. This latter moment is truly uncomfortable, and one of the times the film’s political nods don’t feel like a well-done, era-appropriate bit of set dressing (to be fair, it is a nifty set). The real world is relevant, present and accounted for, but only as it butts in on life at the Chansonia, where old stagehands, hotheaded socialists and newly minted stage stars pull themselves up by their bootstraps just in time for a cheery musical not-quite-finale. France has given us a good number of unforgettable films in the last few years; Paris 36 isn’t one of them, but its easygoing nostalgia is reasonably charming all the same. 

Paris 36 opens Friday, May 8, at the Bijou.