"Paris 36" (or "Faubourg 36") looks and smells like Oscar bait (but without the soulless posturing of, say, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), so it's a bit of a surprise that the French-language film opens against early spring veg-out fare like "The Fast and The Furious" part pi and "Adventureland" this weekend. Forget any "Moulin Rouge" knee-jerk reactions; you aren't in Baz's Paris, but this "Paris" is thrilling in many ways.
Mostly set in and around a music hall called Chansonia in pre-war Paris the film offers a lively take on some dark subject matter with the central hub of characters being touched by the fight for worker's rights (though the strikers shouting "grève" are nearly farcical when put in the context of the country's reputation for recreational strikes), and the rise of fascism. Scenes of the fascist are almost jarring in their vulgarity given the sweet patina given to most of the events of the film. But that is the type of film this is — a cinematic version of the messy vaudeville shows the principal characters stage in their theatre, but with much more cohesive results.
The central conceit of the film is that it is a period drama wrapped in a murder mystery. When first we meet Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), a stage hand at the theatre, he has been arrested for murder and is sitting in the police station. The inspector remarks, he "doesn't look a killer." And the audience has to agree; Jugnot portrays the wounded Pigoil with soft wet eyes and you immediately sympathize with him. From here the story begins in flashback, and it's a ripping yarn pinging and ponging from the bright tale of a few old theater hands struggling to revive their beloved Chansonia to gangsters and politics as the twining forces of socialism and fascism struggle for control of the city, the theatre (and the heart of its star attraction — the lovely Douce, played with grace by Nora Arnezeder, who was just 18 during the filming).
There's a suitable sentimentality, an edge of fantasy and musical interludes that all suite the era, subject and story (though it occasionally requires a suspension of disbelief to buy that the rag-tag group of theatre-workers could pull off the elaborate stage sequences). But the extreme violence of a few scenes and dark underpinnings, as well as terrific work from a talented ensemble pull the whole affair far from the silly romp it could have been and ultimately make it much more than the sum of all its wildly divergent parts.