Staking its success on a vibrant reproduction of 1930s Paris and a surfeit of nostalgic charm, Paris 36’s homage to a milieu and cinema of the past aims for let’s-put-on-a-show razzmatazz but disappointingly settles on being not much more than a pretty, pleasant diversion. The retro-classical pieces are all in place in a plot inspired by countless underdog musicals set in the tinsel and sawdust of showbiz: a ragamuffin music hall troupe comprised of suicidal divorcees, radical organizers, and likable, unfunny comedians; a tense political backdrop to the music hall’s financial straits; a pretty ingénue torn between a working class hero and a greedy mob boss; and the redemption of lives and careers through the power of art. But the paint-by-numbers approach never really adds up. While more endearingly human and less obnoxiously pomo than something like Moulin Rouge, Paris 36 just doesn’t have the dramatic chops to match its aspirations.
Paris 36 (originally titled Faubourg 36) begins on New Year’s Eve 1935 at the Cansonia music hall in a quasi-fictional north Paris neighborhood where stout, hangdog stage manager Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot) discovers his star wife, Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali), is having an affair. At the same time the theater owner is offed by unctuous, scheming mob boss and fascist party mercenary Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who shuts down the entertainment palace and gives its ragtag crew pink slips. Familial and artistic crises intertwine — over the next year Pigoil’s efforts to win back beloved, street singing son Jojo (Maxence Perrin) from his now upwardly mobile, remarried wife coincide with the fortunes of the music hall, which Pigoil leads in reestablishing with a new star attraction, the beautiful singer Douce (Nora Arnezeder), to hopefully buy it back for good.