Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 17, 2009 1:41 pm 
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Glittering period crowd-pleaser

Christophe Barratier found box office success in France in 2004 with his cute feel-good story The Chorus/Les choristes, which was about how a new music teacher brought humanity to a rural French reform school just after WWII by starting a boys' chorus. This also made newcomer Jean-Baptiste Maunier into a French teen icon. Faaubourg 36 is a glitzier, more musical, more nostalgic period drama meant to evoke French films of the Thirties through its focus on a little working class Paris music hall called Chansonia. As the film opens, financial problems lead a mean magnate called Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) to shut Chansonia down. But it's 1936, and in the spirit of socialist fervor (and universal labor-management strife) signaled by the rise of Leon Blum's Popular Front, the employees decide to take over Chansonia and run it themselves, on no money. This effort is spearheaded by the stage manager Germain Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot). Pigoil's life has filled with heartbreak. His dancer wife Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali) has left him and the state has chosen to take away his beloved accordionist son Jojo (Maxence Perrin) and send him to live with Viviane.

Trying to create triumph out of adversity, Pigoil designates an awkward song-and-dance guy called Jacky Jacquet (Kad Merad) and a militant (and Jewish) leftist called Emile "Milou" Leibovich (Clovis Cornillac) to reopen the shuttered musical theater in uneasy cooperation with Galapiat. The show must go on!

This seems a feeble prospect without financial backing, till the three men get lucky when a young newcomer nicknamed Douce (Nora Arnezedzer) turns up at tryouts. She's talented, pretty, and clearly a crowd-pleaser capable of selling tickets and keeping the place going. Her presence provides further insurance when the local boss turns out to like her.

The ups and downs of the plot include depiction of the pervasive anti-Semitism of the extreme Right and the exacerbated hostilities between labor and ownership. There are little tragedies, but everything is softened and ends happily. Seekers of cinematic edge should look elsewhere. I found it hard to engage with the story, because it's too derivative, stereotypical, and diffuse. Production values are excellent and the music hall performances, if sometimes borderline cringe-worthy, carry through the period flavor. And there are some catchy tunes and sprightly stage turns as well.

I saw this film when it was screened last summer at Saul Zaentz Studios in Berkeley by Tom Luddy, Co-Director of the Telluride Film Festival and the consensus of those then present seemed to be that Paris 36 (which has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics) wasn't interesting or unusual enough to show at Telluride.

But Paris 36 seems likely to do well with the more general US subtitles-film audience, and makes perfect sense as the "gala opening film" for the FSLC-UniFrance co-sponsored Rendez-Vous with French Cinema--though in my opinion last year's first night presentation, Claude Lelouch's Roman de Gare, made a much more interesting opener.

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