Old-time in a way that's obvious and heavy-handed instead of fresh and engaging, Paris 36 plays like a low-rent Moulin Rouge, without the killer pop soundtrack, interesting characters or musical razzle-dazzle. While not a particularly bad film, it's hard to figure out who the hell this overstuffed soufflé was made for, except aging Francophiles desperate for some show-must-go-on vaudeville. If you're part of that minuscule demographic, trust me, there are shelves of better and more entertaining flicks at your local Blockbuster.
Without an ounce of irony or insight, writer-director Christophe Barratier offers up a 1930s-style tale of a failing theater and the trio of misfits who come together to save it. There's Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), the head stagehand who loses his accordion-virtuoso son to a philandering wife, Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a womanizing leftist, and Jacky (Kad Merad), a third-rate impressionist who's duped into rallying fascist thugs. Toss in a talented ingénue (Nora Arnezeder), a scheming gangster (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and various song-and-dance numbers and you've the makings of a postmodern Busby Berkeley musical, right? Wrong.
While there's no cliché Paris 36 won't embrace, this old-fashioned tale of romance, parental love, social strife and (for the Oscar committee) anti-Semitism is as shallow as it is lumbering. Barratier confuses the uncomplicated elegance of early French cinema for overproduced simplemindedness, and produces a musty homage that is defiantly sentimental without ever earning our sentiments. There's no nuance or personality, only a schematic and crushingly linear story that features uninvolving actors who shamelessly mug as if playing to the cheap seats.
From Barratier's opening tracking shot, it's clear that not only aren't we in 1930s Paris, we're on some bloated soundstage (the film was shot in Czechoslovakia) that's assisted by CG skylines. It wouldn't be such a big deal — no one's expecting verisimilitude, after all — if all that lavish production design amounted to a distinct sense of place. It doesn't. Instead we're dutifully marched from one fake set piece to the next, until we reach the climactic Hollywood-style musical number. With its rapidly changing costumes and sets, the film finally generates sparks but it's hardly worth the two-hour wait.
An unkind critic would view Barratier's efforts as phony and condescending. I think Paris 36 is just earnestly dull, the cinematic equivalent to scrapbooking.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.