Wednesday, April 1, 2009


By D.E.Levine

Director: Christophe Barratier
Producers: Jacques Perrin, Nicholas Mauvernay
Story : Frank Thomas, Jean-Michel Derenne, Reinhardt Wagner
Screenwriter: Christophe Barratier, Pierre Philippe, Julien Rappeneau
Cast: Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Karl Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Pierre Richard, Maxence Perrin, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu
Music: Reinhardt Wagner
Choreography: Corrine Deveaux
Running Time: 120 minutes
Country of Origin; France
Language: French with English subtitles
Genre: Foreign Film, Musical

I was familiar with Christophe Barratier through "Les Choristes", a sweet but sentimental believable tale so I was unprepared for the enormity of Paris 36 (Faubourg 36). The film trys to accomplish too much both in the story lines and the production numbers.

Beginning as New Year's Eve of 1935 turns into 1936, the story tells the tale of a a music hall owner in the blue collar working-class neighborhood who loses control of the Chansonia to the local mobster Galapiat and commits suicide.

Stunned, four months after his death three of his staff, unable to find work, decide to occupy the music hall, put on a winning show and make enough money to buy the theater from Galapiat. The three friends have their own personal reasons for making the effort. 1936 was the year when left-wing Popular Front government of Leon Blum came to power initiating a period of intensified class struggle and all three of these men are optimistic in their belief that they can achieve their goal and rise above their current circumstances.

Pigoil, the middle-aged stage manager who worked at the Chansonia for 30 years is dealt a double blow when his performer wife runs off with another performer after the Chansonia closes. Leaving him with the couple's son JoJo, Pigoil struggles to provide a home for the boy while the son plays his accordion on the street, secretly paying the grocery bills with his earnings. When the runaway wife settles in a country village with a shop keeper and gets custody of JoJo, Pigoil cannot even find out the boy's location. The only thing he is told is that when he finds paid work he may be able to get his son back.

Unable to get paid work, Pigoil and the others perform and run the theater as volunteers, with the hope of attracting a paying audience. Times are difficult but the factory workers and performers, who are beginning to unionize remain optimistic and strive to make things work. Pigoil is appealing and believable. The viewer's heart goes out to him and is cheering him on. Viewers want him to succeed.

A pretty young singer, Douce, comes to town, auditions for the show and becomes the main attraction at the Chansonia. Amazingly, before her birth her mother had once been the main attraction at the same theater. One of the Chansonia's rescuers, Millou, an electrician and political agitator, falls in love with Douce, but the mobster Gaslapiat has befriended her and is incredibly jealous. Initially, the resurrection of the Chansonia fails. Lured away by other offers, Douce leaves town and it appears that Pigoil will never be reunited with JoJo, and Milou and Doluce will also be separated.

While watching this film I was reminded of Mrs. Henderson Presents, a British film about the reopening of a music hall in London that opened a couple of years ago. It was never boring. I can't say the same about Paris 36 since despite beautiful costumes, sets and cinematography there are unbelievable parts to the story and this has a negative impact on the film's reception.

Although their first attempt at rescuing the Chansonia fails, later the group succeeds at producing and performing extravagant production numbers. But the happy ending is tempered by a murder and more bad breaks and unhappiness for Pigoil.

What's unbelievable is that at the height of the Depression in France these performers could afford the extravagant costumes and lavish sets seen in their production numbers. And with war brewing and money stretched thin, where could people find the money to go to the music hall and make these performers wealthy? The world events, the economy and their impact on the story line are not addressed at all.

The film overlooks World War II, glosses over what's happening in Europe and indicates that the performers were successfully touring in France for many years, establishing themselves and earning a good living. Based on the tragic history of the War and the occupation in France, the story line is highly unlikely and unbelievable. When the film ends 10 years later, the countryside of France and the Faubourg appear to be unscathed and the performers unaffected by the War.

While the score is original, none of the songs are so memorable that they stay with you. Even if you speak French you don't walk out humming the music and singing the words. There are some extravagant musical numbers that look like Busby Berkley planned and executed them, with the same type of dance formations and overhead cinematography. But those raise the question of how these particular performers, without the necessary background and experience, could have produced them. While I like a happy ending, I am hard pressed to believe this story.

Pigoil, the man who has already suffered so much and so unfairly in the beginning and throughout the film, receives additional bad breaks although viewers have to wonder why the law didn't act in his favor due to existing circumstances. This is a man who unlike the mobster is a good, hard working man and yet everything goes wrong for him. We want him to succeed and it's not believable that nothing good happens for him.

In the end, after 120 minutes I felt the story was too long, not original, had unbelievable parts based on denying and ignoring real historical events, and ignored the basic premise we teach, that good people are rewarded in some fashion. Additionally, some of the story lines were not resolved and the audience is left with no knowledge of what happened to major characters whose stories were followed throughout the film.