August 3, 2009
Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****
I’ve seen Paris 36 three times, twice on the big screen (it opened the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2009 Rendezvous with French Cinema) and now on DVD. Those who hate the movie (and there are plenty: A.O. Scott in The New York Times, for one) will think me a masochist. But no, there is much to enjoy in this piece of old-fashioned French cinema made new again via some smart handiwork: newly-written “period” songs that capture the sound and feel of the 1930s (and performed so well), a story of the death and multiple rebirths of a French music hall that simultaneously encompasses politics, unions, anti-Semitism, French Nazis, the performing arts, a love story and a family drama. For starters.
In other hands, all this could easily come off as tired and second-rate but director/co-writer (with Julien Rappeneau and Pierre Philippe) Christophe Barratier approaches his material, on one level, as though it were something new. Consequently, it seems fresher than it has any right to be. On another level, however, the director is very canny. He allows each scene, and all the moments in it, to last precisely the right length, so that the movie, while not charging lickity-split ahead with lots of fast-paced editing, still moves quickly enough that we have no time to waste. "You've seen this before," Barratier seems to be saying, "so let me elide here and open up there and make it all appear new." And he does. One of his elisions -- at the very end -- manages to do away with World War II entirely and then, instead of giving us the expected resolution, allows the audience to use its imagination to fully savor a precious moment that it knows will soon arrive.
Barratier has so far made only one short film and the full-length, award-winning international hit The Chorus; many of the same actors from that film re-appear here: Gerard Jugnot, Kad Merad and Maxence Perrin (son of actor/producer Jacques Perrin). How wonderful to see again Pierre Richard (La Chevre), who is sublime here. Clovis Cornillac (Gilles' Wife) -- he of the mug's face and the Schwarzenegger (well, in his early years) body -- is not an actor you'd expect to see in a semi-musical, yet Cornillac acquits himself admirably as a fighter, lover and dancer. And Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (of the original The Vanishing) as the evil criminal kingpin, manages to shade his role with enough humanity to win a bit of sympathy (unrequited love is, after all, the pits). The discovery of the film is its leading lady Nora Arnezeder, who brings to her role of Douce an irresistible combination of beauty, sweetness and strength -- not to mention a knockout voice. Her final number on stage, sung to her lover, who’s manning the spotlight, while her “protector” and would-be lover seethes as he watches, is a song of dark devotion worthy of Piaf.
I suppose that Paris 36 skews to the older crowd – but I would hope it might also pique the interest of younger audiences who want to savor the taste of Parisian music hall life some 70 years ago – but with all the color, cinematic technique and style that a smart modern moviemaker possesses. A few years down the road, I’ll probably want to see it a fourth time.
(On DVD August 11.)
Posted by cphillips at August 3, 2009 12:41 PM