If your mother or grandmother or favorite aunt is fond of foreign movies as long as they’re not too, well, racy (please, no Catherine Breillat movies!) here’s the perfect Mother’s Day treat for her. Paris 36 is a musical fairy tale about poverty and politics and most of all show business in the most old-fashioned sense of the word. It is set in a working-class neighborhood of Paris in, as you might guess from the title, 1936. The leftist National Front has just been voted into power, cheering a lot of people who had suffered for years under a government indifferent to their problems but at the same time fueling a lot of moneyed sorts who felt that what France needed was someone like those fellas doing such a good job in Italy and Germany. (Comparisons to current conditions in this country are presumably unintentional and hopefully unlikely.) The neighborhood music hall has recently closed. The Chansonia was a shabby place that featured vaudeville acts who couldn’t get bookings in any of the first-rate theaters, but a bad show is better than no show. At least, so think the former workers who put their all into getting the place back and running. To call its plot and characters clichéd would be unkind; “familiar” has a nicer ring. There is love, there is loss, there are bad guys, there are foreshadowings of the even worse times to come, but for the time being there are songs, some delivered with amateurish gusto and some with more pizzazz by the songbird who becomes a star on this little stage. Looking like a 1967 movie from which Moulin Rouge might have been loosely adapted, Paris 36 may be met with disdain by those fond of showing off their knowledge of the real Paris—not wanting to confine himself to any real history, director Christophe Barratier (Les choristes) built a entire faux French neighborhood in Prague. The cast of familiar faces includes Gérard Jugnot, Pierre Richard, and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, and it’s all filmed with appropriately somber tones (and the occasional showy tracking shot) by Tom Stern, cinematographer for most of Clint Eastwood’s recent work. Paris 36 is predictable, corny, and lightweight, and a good example of why those aren’t always bad qualities.
Watch the trailer for Paris 36
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