Paris 36 is a decent movie. Seriously: Few viewers will find something terribly wrong with this film. The performances are all more than adequate. The story doesn’t aim to be anything more than it is. The film is satisfactory without being too saccharine-sweet. Ultimately, Paris 36 is a passable, middle-of-the-road rehash of a timeworn and tested dramatic formula. And this is precisely the work’s downfall.
Set against the backdrop of the emerging conflict between fascist and communist movements in France, Paris 36 is a relatively simple story about a hip neighborhood’s fight to keep a defunct and unsustainable cultural landmark alive. After the recent suicide of their boss, the employees of the Chansonia Music Hall in Fabourg try to resurrect their beloved theater after an uncultured thug of a businessman (and fascist!) condemns it to death. (Imagine what it would be like if people in Manhattan actually gave a shit about the demise of CBGB’s and you’d have a reasonably accurate correlative to this story of this film.) The neighborhood bands together to rescue the theater and meets with some challenges along the way but ultimately triumphs in the face of ugly consumerism and competition.
Director Christophe Barratier doesn’t try overexert himself with this outing, and it shows. The story of Paris 36 should be familiar to most filmgoers, featuring such immediately recognizable way-finding devices as the boorish-capitalist-owner-who-doesn’t-understand-art and the idealistic-communist-womanizer-with-a-heart-of-gold. This melodrama lets the viewer know who to root for and who to despise in its very first sequence, and, frankly, that's a little insulting. There is no hint of goodness to be found in the “bad guys,” and the “good guys,” while they might have their foibles, are not conflicted enough for us to really wonder about their motives. That said, the actors are all wonderful without exception, particularly newcomer Nora Arnezeder, who plays an ingénue singer to a tee.
The one element of the film that stands ahead of the rest is Tom Stern’s cinematography. A longtime collaborator of Clint Eastwood's, Stern is known for his crisply beautiful work in films like Mystic River and The Last Kiss. He pulls out all the stops for Paris 36. With every tool in his arsenal available to use at leisure, Stern lets himself go wild. The colors, shadows, and contrasts he captures are true eye candy, and I mean this in the best of all possible ways.
Barratier has confected a sugary treat for viewers easily infatuated with the music hall tradition and the unmitigated goodness of “real” French people. By clearly delineating the good guys and bad guys, Barratier creates an easily digestible film about the essential purity of art and the ugliness of commerce. If only it were that simple.