From the roof of the Chansonia, a music hall in a blue-collar quarter on the outskirts of Paris, you can glimpse the Eiffel Tower in the distance. But for a dazzling spectacle of life, love, strife, and glamor, you need look no farther than the homely theater below. With little else but talent and determination, three men attempt to restore the abandoned Chansonia to its boisterous splendor. As exuberantly as Mickey Rooney exhorting Judy Garland: “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” Pigoil (Jugnot), a veteran stage manager; Milou (Cornillac), a labor organizer; and Jacky (Merad), a performer who calls himself “The Prince of Imitators,” set out to raise the curtain on a darkened local stage. And with Paris 36, director Christophe Barratier revives the vanished art of French vaudeville, an effervescent entertainment in which dancers and chanteuses can share billing with a garishly garbed actor who simulates the sounds of ducks, frogs, and airplanes.
The film is set in 1936, when election of the leftist Popular Front offers encouragement to residents of the working-class neighborhood in which the Chansonia is located. They feel so rooted there that they call it simply the Neighborhood (le Faubourg — the film’s French title is Faubourg 36). Complicating efforts to revive their music hall is the fact that ownership has been acquired by a dapper gangster, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who is in cahoots with fascist politicians. He pressures Jacky to serve as a mole among the hostile theater folk, and he clashes with Milou over the affections of Douce (Arnezeder), a beautiful ingénue who arrives in Paris with high hopes and the gift of song. Wistful Pigoil is distressed over losing custody of his son to his wayward former wife.
Paris 36 is an endearing evocation of a vibrant world before the Fall — before May 1940, when Paris fell to German troops and most of France came under the control of Nazis and their collaborators. The anti-Semitic insults directed at Milou, whose real name is Emile Leibovich, and the vile, racist nationalism evident at a right-wing rally anticipate the horrors that lurk a few years off. But meanwhile, it is possible to believe in the benign power of labor solidarity and simple melodies. Marcel Carné made his famous theater film, Children of Paradise, under the noses of the Nazis, as a celebration of life in and as theater. So, too, does Paris 36 provide an affirmation that the show can and must go on, despite the personal challenges that its characters face, and despite the troubles besetting Paris. It would take a viewer inoculated against joie de vivre not to be infected by this film’s buoyant spirits. Like the vaudeville programs it summons from historical oblivion, it is embarrassingly and gloriously motley. Some of the performers richly earn the scathing reviews they receive, and, in the era of satellite TV, iPods, and YouTube, a boy playing an accordion now seems merely quaint. But Douce’s zestful rendition of the totemic song “Paris, Paris” proves potent enough to draw a sentimental hermit out of 20 years’ seclusion. Vive le show business.