There is plenty of evidence to support the argument that French film is alive and well. Recent movies as diverse as "The Class," "A Christmas Tale," "The Secret of the Grain" and "La France" might even lead a Francophile cinephile to conclude that a new day of glory has arrived.
And then there is "Paris 36." This movie, directed by Christophe Barratier ("Les Choristes"), is perhaps not horrendous enough to bring down a proud national cinema all by itself, but it is so shameless in its pandering, sentimental vision of Frenchness as to constitute something of a national embarrassment. Filmed on a set whose fanciful evocation of a Parisian faubourg makes "Moulin Rouge!" look naturalistic (and "Amélie" look like a documentary), "Paris 36" is unstinting in its deployment of Gallic clichés.
Its overstuffed, preening tracking shots take in baguettes, berets and tricolor bunting, accompanied by the incessant squawking of accordions. Most of the men sport droopy mustaches atop even droopier lips, and they smoke and sip vin rouge and speak sighingly of love and politics. Why, look, it's the Eiffel Tower! And there it is again! Remarkably, no one kisses his fingertips and exclaims "Sacre bleu!" or "Magnifique!," but I'd bet you euros to croissants that such a moment was left somewhere on the Pathé cutting-room floor.
The number in the title refers to 1936, when the left-wing Popular Front government of Léon Blum came to power, initiating a period of intensified class struggle and political antagonism. Barratier takes this fraught and interesting moment of strikes, factory occupations, rising fascism and mass unemployment and turns it into the vague and gauzy backdrop for a nostalgic and improbable tale of music-hall shenanigans.
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There is nothing wrong with taking a whimsical or melodramatic view of history, but both the film's humor and its pathos are glib and predictable, making the experience grating rather than charming.
But "Paris 36" works so hard to charm you that you may be tempted to like it out of pity, which in the course of two long hours can start to feel like fondness. Its main characters, after all, are such sad, lovable little Frenchmen.
Certainly one can't dislike Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), who in the opening scenes loses almost everything: his backstage job at the Chansonia music hall; his wife, who runs off with a fellow performer; and then his beloved son, an accordion prodigy named Jojo (Maxence Perrin), who is taken from Pigoil's custody by heartless bureaucrats.
And how can you resist Pigoil's pal Jacky (Kad Merad), who fancies himself "the prince of impressionists"? Or Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a stagehand, labor agitator and ladies' man?
Somehow it's possible. "Paris 36" hustles through a busy hive of plots and subplots, most of them surrounding the efforts of Pigoil and his buddies to revive the moribund Chansonia. Also to rescue it -- and a comely chanteuse called Douce (Nora Arnezeder) -- from the clutches of the neighborhood's chief gangster (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu).
Threaded through it all are vintage-style French songs (by Reinhardt Wagner and Frank Thomas) to go with the vintage clothes, the vintage cars and the vintage politics. (The muted vintage of the film comes from Tom Stern, the cinematographer who has given Clint Eastwood's films their burnished, somber tones.)
It should all be more fun than it is. But Barratier, in trying to evoke the great French films of the 1930s and '40s, mistakes their elegant clarity for simple-mindedness and treats his material and his audience with condescension. He wants us to think about the bad old times and the good old movies, but he's hopelessly mixed up. The times were, in many ways, much worse than "Paris 36" lets on. But the movies were rarely this bad.