Paris 36

Paris 36


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

As much of the world faces recession, with people struggling to find work and to find hope in their lives, there couldn't be a film more timely than Paris 36. Reflecting on similar times almost a century ago, it follows a group of people who lose everything yet remain determined to turn their lives around. It's a familiar fable but it's beautifully told and it can really lift your spirits.

The music hall, of course, was a traditional place to seek escapist entertainment in hard times, just as the cinema is today. But in 1930s Paris even the music halls were struggling to get by.

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Paris 36 sets out the stage within the first few minutes. Our hero, Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), is abandoned by his wife. A rich man surrounded by gangsters forecloses on the debts owed by his beloved Chansonia. Everybody is out on the street. But Pigoil's son, Jojo, is determined that things can get better, and stagehand Milou (Clovis Cornillac) quickly finds himself talked into the kind of workers' occupation he's been striving to inspire elsewhere. When a beautiful young singer arrives on the scene, it looks as if the Chansonia's fortunes might be restored after all - but as Milou falls for her, so does the rich man, and the stage is set for tragedy.

As the young singer, Nora Arnezeder is the perfect choice - it's easy to forget that this is only her second feature film. She has a fine voice and, working with beautifully written songs, effectively conveys the mood of the times. Alongside her, comedian Kad Merad turns in a fine performance as a hopeless impressionist, and young Maxence Perrin is electric as Jojo, a real find.

But the real strength of this film stems from the fact that it never lingers too long on one character or one part of the story - this is no Moulin Rouge, obliged to dazzle us with glitter in the hope that we'll forgive a flimsy plot. It's still beautiful to look at, but the glamour is, naturally, in proportion to the meagre finances of the characters - what gets our attention is the acting and the stuff of the shows.

The whole thing is framed as a show, with a sort of artificial squalor as clean and pretty as a Christmas card, but the effect is to suggest that we're watching real people whose destinies are dictated by something bigger than all of them. Like a classic Greek tragedy, it relies on our familiarity with the story format to bolster its poignancy.

Developing a story like this from a strong left-wing viewpoint is something new and rather refreshing. What matters in Paris 36 is not the success of individuals but friendship and mutual support, emotional investment and a direct stand against exploitative capitalism. In this regard the film really wears its heart on its sleeve, and this enables it to make a pertinent statement about its times, when fascism was threatening to sweep across Europe and the spirit of the music hall - of art and playfulness and sexual ambiguity - became inescapably political. As such, despite its conventional framework, Paris 36 does more than just entertain. It has something to say about the relevance of entertainment today.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2009
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A group of workers try to take over their music hall when it's threatened with closure, but the arrival of a beautiful new singer leads to tragedy.
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Director: Christophe Barratier

Writer: Christophe Barratier, Pierre Philippe

Starring: Gérard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Pierre Richard, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Maxence Perrin

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: France, Germany, Czech Republic

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