Paris 36 tries to do a dozen different things, and does none of them well. But even that description may not be harsh enough, because it makes the film sound ambitious. It's not. Director Christophe Barratier, whose The Chorus was a quality rendition of an age-old formula, doesn't even pretend to give much thought to any of the disparate elements he assembles here. This is one of those middlebrow period-piece comedies that mistakes frenzy for energy and spotless soundstage gloss for visual style. It may play well with certain audiences for whom "arthouse" is synonymous with "no explosions," but there's really nothing to see here.
Well, in theory there's a lot to see, including but not limited to the following: a would-be portrait of the French Popular Front in the 1930's; the story of a bunch of unemployed workers banding together to put on a show and save a historic theater; the tragedy of an old workhorse (Gérard Jugnot) who loses custody of his accordion prodigy son to his cheating wife when the theater first closes down; a romance between a communist rabblerouser (and stagehand, and actor!) and a singing ingénue (Nora Arnezeder) taken under the wing of a fascist loan shark (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu); the spiritual rebirth of an old orchestra conductor who has spent the last 20 years alone with his radio; a no-talent comic (Kad Merad) who sinks to performing for the Nazis after being booed off stage by everyone else, though he is of course much too lovable to actually be an anti-Semite.
At two hours long, Paris 36 can do nothing but barrel through all of this as superficially as possible. The show that the ragtag theaterfolk attempt to stage is one of those cheesy variety revues most people today know only from movies – a little singing, a little dancing, maybe an impressionist. The film plays kind of like that too. Don't like this subplot? Wait three minutes. Meanwhile, everything whizzes past at light speed, and nothing registers.
For all that the movie claims to be set in the 30s, its attitudes are absurdly contemporary. When a character derisively calls another a "Jew," it's a huge, huge deal – the end of the world. The communist revolutionary is really a hippie, seen yelling at management early in the film, but mostly just singing and dancing thereafter. Not that I demand verisimilitude or historical accuracy, but it just goes to show how insubstantial Paris 36 is. It goes on and on about strikes and poverty and injustice in 30s France, but doesn't actually give a damn. The setting is an aesthetic choice, nothing more.
That would have been fine too if it had been an interesting aesthetic choice. Alas, Paris 36 looks like every early-20th-Century period piece you've ever seen – the same toybox streets, charming alleys and electric marquees; everything designed to look as quaint and fake and sanitized as possible. All the better for audiences to describe the movie as "cute" and not give it another thought.
The movie is broadly comic but not very funny, and sappy without earning its sentimentality. A kid playing an accordion may be adorable; a kid reuniting with his father while playing an accordion (I am not making this up) is even cuter. But neither functions as an emotional payoff without something more. The last act really pours on the syrup; the film is so excited about showing off its protagonists' theatrical triumph that it winds up looking more like a music video than a stage show.
In case you haven't figured out, there's a pet peeve at work here. Few things annoy me more than this sort of totally frivolous period piece – the kind of movie that seems respectable by virtue of arthouse distribution and the fact that it appeals to audiences over 40 rather than under 18. But it's barely different in kind from Death Race or Babylon A.D. or whatever low-rent Hollywood movie you care to name. It's certainly no more thoughtful.