(Sony Classics) Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Pierre Richard, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Maxence Perrin, Francois Morel. Directed by Christophe Barratier
Paris in 1936 was a volatile place. The left-wing Popular Front held power and the nation seemed to be swinging towards socialism, but the rise of Hitler in Germany was fueling a fascist faction that was gaining more and more traction, particularly with those who had a lot of money which wasn’t a particularly large number in Depression-era France. It was a good time to be nervous; it was a good time to be in love. It was also a good time to put on a show.
The Chansonia Theatre regularly did just that, although their rent was in arrears to the point where the soulless blackguard of a landlord, Galapiat (Donnadieu) is threatening to seize the theater if he doesn’t receive his rent my midnight. The theater manager does what any good manager does in a situation like that; he shoots himself. The doors of the theater are padlocked and it seems, after all, that the show won’t go on.
The effects of this are devastating on those who work there. For Pigoil (Jugnot), a stagehand who’s given his life for the Chansonia, it means his marriage is over; his wife had been stepping out on him anyway, but out of work, he is unable to support his young son Jojo, a prodigy on the accordion. Jojo is sent to live with his mother, who has since remarried a much wealthier man.
Pigoil is heartbroken. He sees the soul having been ripped away from him, just as it was from the neighborhood when the Chansonia closed. But wait! If Pigoil can put together a show that would fill the tiny, decrepit theater, perhaps the neighborhood would be saved and Pigoil could get his son back. On board with the idea are Jacky (Merad), a man who wore a sandwich board to advertise the theater and who also fancies himself an impressionist. The socialist stagehand (and serial womanizer) Milou (Cornillac) also seizes upon the idea. Galapiat agrees to allow the show to go on – after all, the empty theater is generating no money for him. Then, the three friends discover Douce (Arnezeder), a singer with talent and charisma and they know they have a hit on their hands.
And they do. Douce turns out to be the best thing since Piaf and the theater is packed night after night. Even better, Douce and Milou fall deeply in love. Unfortunately, the rapacious landlord Galapiat has his own plans and they don’t include the happiness of others. Can this plucky troupe fight back and win the day?
This is the kind of movie they’re talking about when they say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” which is ironic since the movie proves that they are making ‘em like that anymore – only they’re making ‘em in France. Director Barratier had the Faubourg neighborhood built outside of Prague, streets and all and the set is magnificent. It evokes not only the period, but the place. There is so much rich detail that you can watch this movie several times and not pick up everything.
Jugnot is not what you would call a typical leading man from a Hollywood point of view. Overweight, middle-aged and not particularly handsome, he has a droopy-eyed charm that instantly warms you to him. In the United States, he would never see any sort of role other than comic relief. Thankfully, the French have no such strictures and give him a role that he makes rather memorable.
The structure of the movie recalls the films of that era. From the “let’s put on a show” pluckiness to characters like Monsieur TSF (Richard) who never leaves his room and just listens to jazz on the radio all day but turns out to be a world famous songwriter who is moved to leave his room by the charm of Douce. The musical numbers, particularly the last one, have the optimistic smile-though-your-heart-is-breaking-oh-you-kid quality that you would find in movies of the 30s.
And yet this is not all sunshine and crepes. The character of the landlord is far darker and more brutal than any you might find in movies of the time save for perhaps movies starring Jimmy Cagney and there is underlying darkness and impending tragedy as the war clouds that are swirling on the horizon begin to make themselves be known. This lends a particular poignancy to the film it might not have had otherwise.
My only concern here is that during the middle of the movie it seemed to drag a little bit, and I thought Barratier might have been better served to condense things somewhat. Perhaps that’s just my American-bred attention span (or lack thereof) talking though.
This is a marvelous movie that reminds me of a bygone era that I’m far too young to remember directly but one that I’ve come to know through watching movies of the time. The charm that Paris 36 possesses is the kind that you can’t manufacture with CGI or find with focus groups. This is obviously a labor of love, a tribute to the kind of movie that those who made it adore and respect, and their affection shows through in every frame. It won’t dazzle you but it will melt your cares away, and isn’t that what movies are supposed to be about?
WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous period detail and a wonderful performance by Jugnot are buttressed by an Andy Hardy “let’s put on a show” mentality underscored by the darkness of the period.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie could have used some plot condensing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality, as well as a couple of scenes of violence. Probably okay for older teens and mature younger ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monsieur TSF is named after a radio station in Paris that has broadcast jazz music since the era of Paris 36.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10