“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” writes Michael Joshua Rowin in his review for indieWIRE of French director Christophe Barratier’s follow up to 2004’s “The Chorus,” which opens this week to mixed reviews.
In his description of the film, Rowin writes: “‘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.” Rowin concludes that “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.”
Indeed, several critics (perhaps inevitably) have compared the film to Baz Luhrmann’s lavish musical. “Barratier’s subject matter can’t help but recall such pics as ‘Children of Paradise,’ ‘Moulin Rouge’ and recent Gallic hit ‘La Vie en rose.’ Yet the helmer brings a distinctive sensibility to the proceedings, embracing the artifice of late-1930s French cinema with an ingratiating earnestness that depends more on rock-solid ensemble work than on a single, galvanizing perf,” Eddie Cockrell writes in his positive review for Variety. According to him it’s “A bracingly old-fashioned, lushly visualized showbiz meller set against pre-World War II Gallic political unrest…a loving tip of the hat to studio-bound French pics of the period that’s plenty entertaining on its own terms.” For Slant Magazine’s Nick Schager, the “Moulin Rouge” comparison is significantly less complimentary. “‘The Chorus’ may have peddled a sickly strain of sentimentality, but at least its squishiness was relatively streamlined. Not so for Christophe Barratier’s follow-up, Paris 36, a superficial, clichéd jumble that illustrates what might happen if you threw ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Amélie’ into the same high-speed blender,” he writes in his 1-star review for Slant Magazine. He goes on to say that “Bloat is the operative word to describe this messy quasi-musical… Young love, social strife, anti-Semitism and paternal devotion form the soggy foundation upon which ‘Paris 36’ is built, with Barratier cramming hastily conceived, hackneyed subplots into his 120 minutes like a man trying to come from behind to win a pie-eating contest. Indigestion is the natural effect of this strategy, which also entails paroxysmal editing, superfluous CG-aided panoramas of the city, and musical numbers that pop up randomly and—aside from a spirited Busby Berkley-inspired sequence—fly by so quickly they barely register.”
Echoing Schager’s complaints, the main objection critics raise has to do with what they see as the cheaply sentimental and schmaltzy tone of the movie. The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson writes: “Assault by relentless accordion-playing, ‘Paris 36’ proves that sometimes, imitation is the highest form of flatulence. Christophe Barratier follows up his equally pandering ‘The Chorus’ (2004) with an aggressively nostalgic, tinny homage to French musicals of the 1930s and ’40s… Though Paris 36 looks pretty (it was lensed by frequent Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern), Barratier’s version of ‘Frenchness’ is non-site-specific, Euro playground; 90 percent of the film was shot in the Czech Republic. Like ‘Amélie’s’ scrubbed-up City of Lights, ‘Paris 36’ is an antiseptic arthouse trifle, so eager to soothe that it only numbs.” The Times’ Edward Porter would seem to agree. In his opinion, “The phrase that comes to mind is cinéma de papa, the term used by the nouvelle vague to decry the bland, old-fashioned movies against which they rebelled.”
The film does have its defenders. The Guardian UK’s Philip French calls it “immensely enjoyable” and adds that “’Paris 36′ is exquisitely designed by Jean Rabasse and handsomely photographed by Tom Stern.” Wally Hammond in Time Out London describes it as a “colourful, undemanding musical melodrama.” While not quite offering a resounding endorsement of the film, he writes: “‘Paris 36’ employs performances on the sympathetic side of comic caricature which, while disallowing any sense of depth, steers the film nimbly between the twin rocks of overt sentimentality and pompousness. It looks a treat, with Eastwood’s cinematographer Tom Stern shooting fluidly in ’Scope with an alternating colour palette of cobblestone grey and boudoir rouge, and luxuriates in evidently painstaking costume and set design. The cherry on the cake is newcomer Nora Arnezeder as Douce, the provincial ingénue with the yellow bangs and the golden voice.”
Ultimately, however, it may not matter what the critics think since the film, it seems, has potential as crowd pleaser with a built in audience of musicals fans and Francophiles. The Hollywood Reporter’s Peter Brunette though not a fan of the film himself (he calls it a “formulaic feel-good movie set unconvincingly during the political upheavals of 1930’s France”) does concede that “Those who admired French director Barratier’s previous outing, ‘The Chorus’ (most ticket-buying viewers), which also headlined veteran comic actor Gerard Jugnot, will surely admire ‘Paris 36,’ another heartwarming tale of a determined man overcoming great odds to triumph in the end, though the admiration might be a bit more tepid this time around.” Similarly, New York Magazine’s David Edelstein in his mixed review of the movie (he describes it as a “lush, cornball French melodrama” rescued from being a “mass of droopy, mustached, big-honkered Gallic character actors” by Nora Arnezeder’s performance) writes: “My tolerance for French kitsch is low and French accordion music lower, so that I stayed in my seat bodes well for the film’s commercial prospects.”