For a backstage musical that sees its lavishly art-directed Paris neighborhood (an unnamed proxy Montmartre) beset by mobsters, communists, fascists, capitalists, satirists and sexists, Paris 36 is remarkably inoffensive. Not that it needs to offend per se, but it's rather frustrating that a film covering such a broad swath of recent history is so emotionally flat. Or maybe it feels flat because it's spread so thin.
Paris 36 moves in multiple directions at once, with more or less successful results. Its family melodrama–centered on Gerard Jugnot as music hall employee then co-operator Pigoil–might have made a more engaging leading narrative. Instead it gets buried, his ex-wife and estranged son trotted out every twenty minutes to remind us of the emotional stakes involved in his struggle to refurbish the Chansonia music hall into a successful entertainment enterprise. That would have been a much darker film though, and one gets the sense that Paris 36 is already as dark as writer-director Christophe Barratier can handle.
From a pop-Wellesian opening shot that swoops from the skyline into the Chansonia backstage, to the final diegesis-breaking musical number, Barratier puts on a craft fair. In many ways, Paris 36 alternately evokes a studio-era Hollywood spectacular, a French musical from the 50s or 60s and recent period epics like Moulin Rouge and Cradle Will Rock. The costumes, sets and makeup are beautiful (Pigoil's aging make-up would put one Benjamin Button to shame), managing just the right balance of verisimilitude and stylization to escape historical nit-picking and sentimental artifice. The cinematography and editing are similarly elegant in a classical sort of way, favoring operatic movements and long takes over the handheld, choppy style of the day.
Against this pretty, but depthless backdrop, Barratier follows Pigoil and his oppositely-tempered colleagues Milou (an irritable electrician, Marxist poseur and womanizer, played by Clovis Cormillac) and Jacky (a charming but clueless comedian played by Kad Merad). This trio seeks to wrest control of the Chansonia from neighborhood mobster and union buster Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), an endeavor that fails miserably until Douce (Nora Arnezeder) walks into the picture. Easy on the eyes and ears, Douce saves the Chansonia, but unwittingly becomes a replacement property for the movie's men to fight over.
For all its clashing ideologies, though, Paris 36 remains staunchly apolitical. This is high pastiche, with history serving as an open book of styles and stories to be plundered without substantial engagement. As such, it delivers exactly what's expected of it in a fancy package will all kinds of impressive functions and features. When its two hours are over, though, nothing sticks because there are no sticking points: Barratier tracks smoothly through history and out the other end.