It’s easy to peg Christophe Barratier’s Paris 36 as some half-baked jumble of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), combining the basic plot of the former and the precociousness of the latter. In some ways this is true, but it’s also ultimately incorrect. Sure, like Luhrmann’s film, Paris 36 is a romance set in a Parisian music hall. And like Jeunet’s film, the movie is very, very French. But at the same time, Barratier’s movie is its own entity, never nearly as frantic or overwhelmingly stylish as Moulin Rouge! and never as quirky or whimsical as Amélie.
This isn’t to say that Paris 36 is by any means boring. From what is at base a fairly generic romance, Barratier is able to create a surprisingly entertaining little movie. While never possessing anything approaching the panache of either Luhrmann or Jeunet, Barratier still manages to coat the film in his own understated style—a style that suits the film’s realistic underpinnings.
Set in the Paris of 1936, the plot verges on melodrama—but never quite succumbs to it—and contains a smattering of political turmoil thrown in for good measure. Taking place in a world edging toward war and fully entrenched in the Great Depression, the period adds some weight to the proceedings, but that weight never overpowers the light tone that flows through the rest of the movie.
The movie revolves around a music hall called the Chansonia, and explores the cast of characters linked to the hall and their attempts to keep it open after the suicide of its owner (on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, an aspect reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). From the stagehand Pigoil’s (Gérard Jugnot, The Chorus) attempts to keep custody of his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin, The Chorus) to the love triangle between shady businessman Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), Communist stagehand Milou (Clovis Cornillac) and a young, talented singer (the charming Nora Arnezeder, who nearly makes the entire movie), the movie’s never far from the melodramatic. It’s filled with these kinds of overstuffed complications, but these are exactly what keep the film interesting and moving along. Even if Paris 36 is on the insubstantial side, it never ceases to be entertaining.
Being set inside a music hall, the film, of course, includes some musical numbers, but they rarely transcend being utilitarian or stage-bound. When they do—like in a Busby Berkeley-inspired beach number—Paris 36 shows its full potential. In many ways, the musical numbers are the movie in a nutshell: perfectly adequate throughout, often showing flashes of being something a little bit more, but never fully crossing that line. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, violence and brief language.