The growth of any city can be measured by the development of its neighborhoods. The differing districts diverge as artists populate one area, young families form communities in another and college students scramble to wherever rent is cheapest. A snapshot of Hyde Park captures a different Boise than a page from a Garden City scrapbook. In ancient metropolises such as Paris, each neighborhood also has a unique history, with local heroes--or villains--and defining events. In its original French title, Faubourg 36, director/screenwriter Cristophe Barratier tells the story of one Paris neighborhood's mission to save a small vaudeville theater in the midst of civil unrest.
Set between the two world wars, Paris 36 tells of Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), the former manager of the once-great Chansonia--a dive of a hall in the Faubourg district that showcased B-list comedians and subpar singers before being shut down by fascist mafioso Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). When Pigoil's estranged wife denies him child visitation rights due to his unemployment, he joins young revolutionary Milou (Clovis Cornillac) and sartorially challenged impressionist Jacky (Kad Merad) to restore the Chansonia to its former glory. When talented songbird Douce (Nora Arnezeder) joins the troupe, the theater begins selling out each show. But will she find love with Milou or be wooed away by the lecherous Galapiat, whose investment in the hall depends on her fidelity?
Paris 36 is the second film from director Barratier--his first being the charming Les Choristes (2004)--and he continues in the vein of simple, nostalgic stories that are sweet, but not overly sugary. Yes, the typical Francophilia cliches are firmly in place, with accordions, tiny cafes and the Eiffel Tower all taking their turn in the spotlight. But this is the era that birthed these iconic images, and the film serves as a loving homage to the tropes, not a cheap exploitation of our familiarity with them.
Similarly--and in the tradition of vaudeville shows of bygone years--the cast all excellently play the roles of established caricatures; the naive ingenue, the lovestruck stagehand and the buffoonish waiter are part of a recognizable stock of characters throughout film history. Storywise, there's a bit of Cabaret (1972), a healthy portion of Moulin Rouge (2001) and a dash of The Producers (1968). But Barratier uses these well-worn elements to create something welcoming, a banquet of familiar but comforting dishes. We've sampled these flavors before, but their recognizable taste provides us with expectancy, not boredom. There are just enough hints of the larger social and political upheavals concurrent with the time period to balance what essentially is a throw-away story of the "let's put on a show" variety.
With sweeping cinematography from Oscar nominee Tom Stern (2008's The Changeling) and a cafe-worthy score by composer Reinhardt Wagner, Paris 36 is a well-crafted peek into a certain time and place, like a handsomely framed peep-hole into the neighborhood's history. The setting may not vary much, but there's an ever-changing and regionally unique story continually being enacted in front of us.