A visually rich and exceedingly well ordered musical drama, Paris 36 tells the story of a group of unemployed French stage performers who form a sort of artistic collective and decide to reopen their neighborhood musical hall. With original, vintage-style songs from composer Reinhardt Wagner and lyricist Frank Thomas and plenty of top-shelf production design, the film successfully woos you with its surface charms long before one feels the effects of its sympathetic characters.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christopher Barratier (The Chorus), Paris 36 unfolds in a grubby, somewhat bohemian suburb of northeast Paris between December 1935 and July 1936, during the “revolutionary” period of the Popular Front, which saw the first national introduction of paid holidays and a shorter working week. The film follows three unemployed performers — Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot, above right), a cuckolded veteran stage hand; Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a hot-tempered electrician; and jack-of-all-trades Jacky (Kad Merad) — who decide to reestablish their beloved music hall to its former glory. Business is slow and back-biting high until they audition and hire the beautiful Douce (Nora Arnezeder, above left), a young singer with a remarkable voice who holds the key to their collective success.
Paris 36 takes an obvious inspiration from Busby Berekeley musicals, as well as vaudeville and cabarets of yore, but it also recalls the heavily workshopped efforts of Mike Leigh, as well as Moulin Rouge — the latter not so much in terms of pop exuberance, but rather exacting construction. A study in well orchestrated, non-gloomy realism, the movie also benefits greatly from many of its cast members’ familiarity and obvious comfort with Barratier (Jugnot and Merad both costarred in The Chorus); the characters here are well sketched, and the acting so solid and of a piece that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles. If it’s a slight bit overlong at two hours (its introductory brushstrokes could have been shortened without much overall sacrifice), Paris 36 still connects as a sumptuous and emotionally substantive look at the triumph of artistic will in the face of difficult circumstances.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a deep-set snap-in tray, Paris 36 comes to DVD with a heartening slate of special features that yet again showcases Sony’s admirable home video commitment to foreign language titles. Barratier dominates a feature-length audio commentary track with Arnezeder, waxing philosophic regarding his directorial opinions on playback, point-of-view shots and coverage. He also talks about the difficulty of communicating with the movie’s Czech extras, and his willful seduction of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby cinematographer, Tom Stern.
Twenty-three minutes of deleted scenes kick off the rest of the supplemental material, providing an even deeper portrayal of an artistically and economically tottering Paris. This material is less about discarded plot strands and more about around-the-edges color, and authenticity of setting. A special 10-minute featurette solely on Arnezeder has the potential to turn into hyperbolic fluff (it’s subtitled “The Young Revelation’s Beautiful Adventure”), but it actually comes across as an honest chronicling of a young starlet’s rise, in no small part due to the inclusion of insights and reminiscences from those both inside and outside the decision-making casting bubble. A hearty helping (a half hour’s worth) of subtitled interviews with the main actors gives an overview of the production from their perspective, while Thomas Lautner’s production design sketches anchor a 25-minute making-of featurette that looks at the all-important selection of Paris 36‘s locations. Trailers for Easy Virtue, It Might Get Loud, I’ve Loved You So Long and a quartet of other Sony DVD releases are also included. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) A (Disc)