Paris 36 (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

film_paris-36_sm.jpgParis 36 is one of those exasperating movies which can’t decide what it want to be and, as a result, ends up being not very much as all.

 

 

 

film_paris-36.jpg 

Paris 36 is one of those exasperating movies which can’t decide what it want to be and, as a result, ends up being not very much as all. It’s as if a cast of Gallic Mickeys and Judys wandered on to the set of Victor, Victoria, had one of their "Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!" inspirations which somehow ended up on film, and then later someone in the front office decided to graft on some pretend-serious stuff about fascism and labor unrest in the hopes that it would lend the project some intellectual heft and increase the take at box office. The result is a movie not charming enough to succeed as a fable, yet too ridiculous to engage as drama.

The lack of realism is cued by an opening shot of the snowy rooftops of Paris pretty enough to belong on a Christmas card, and in case you didn’t get the message, a similar shot is repeated at the end of the show, along with the closing of a stage curtain. Most of the story takes place in a supposedly gritty Parisian working-class suburb (the French title is Faubourg 36) in which the cobblestones are scrubbed as clean as a hospital ward and there are no visible signs of poverty except when the plot requires them to be pointed out. Yet the film, which is set in the years 1935 to 1946, also tries to engage the heart and mind with the struggles of striking laundry workers and the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism, but ends up treating them as a backdrop as artificial as those used on the stage of the nightclub Chansonia which provides the setting for most of the story.

The principal characters share a connection to the Chansonia: Pigiol (Gerard Jugnot) manages it, Milou (Clovic Cornillac) is a stagehand, and Jacky (Kad Merad) and Douce (Nora Arnezeder) appear on stage. JoJo (Maxence Perrin) is Pigiol’s streetwise son and Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) is the Big Bad who not only shutters the club due to unprofitability, but is a fascist, lecher and anti-Semite to boot. The club is closed; the workers struggle to re-open it. They get involved in political and labor struggles. They engage in romantic longings and sexual couplings.

And so on. The plot is a mess of melodramatic improbabilities and never misses the opportunity to push the audience’s emotional buttons. Before the end of the picture, not only will those accordion lessons finally pay off, but obscure familial relationships will be joyfully discovered, a wicked witch of a mother will see the error of her ways, the near-dead will rise not only to walk but also to conduct an orchestra, and miraculous singing and dancing abilities will be discovered among the most unlikely cast members. It’s all presented through a haze of nostalgia so thick you could cut it with a knife, and every cliché associated with France, from baguettes to accordions to the Eiffel Tower, is dutifully allotted its requisite screen time.

There’s some good acting along the way, particularly from Jugnot as a stressed-out father trying to do the right thing for his son, and Arnezeder is surprisingly convincing in the improbable role of a girl who can sing like Edith Piaf but just didn’t know it (until the plot required her talents be discovered, of course). Excellent cinematography by Tom Stern, who shot several of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies, highlights the fairy-tale aspect of the story; it’s just too bad writer-director Christophe Barratier (Julien Rappeneau is co-credited as writer) couldn’t pick a lane and then stick with it. | Sarah Boslaugh

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