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Paris 36: Satisfying, But Overstuffed

Written by: Letty Muse Tomlinson, Special to CC2K

Paris 36 apparently packs a lot of look, but it's all worth it in the end.

ImageAt least twice a month, I get a craving for a burrito bowl from Chipotle. And I like to load it up: carne, black beans, rice, lots of lettuce, lots of guacamole, two dollops of sour cream, a little cheese, green peppers and onions and at least two kinds of salsa. The first few bites are always the best, because I can taste each item complementing the others. Soon, however, I’ve mushed each ingredient into each other and I end up with a savory sludge. It’s hard to tell where the guacamole ends and the sour cream begins, or whether the sogginess permeating everything is from the tomatoes in the pico de gallo, or the lettuce. The only foodstuff that is easy to identify is the shredded beef; but even its distinctive texture is soaked in the sweat of the fast-Mex flavor muck. I’m going somewhere with this. Trust me.

Paris 36 reminds me of that burrito bowl. It has too many stories and “tasty elements” squashed into a too-small space. The first few bites of the movie are tantalizing and tasty, but by the end, all we’re left with is a feeling of being overstuffed with too much fun that should have been better measured or, at least, more slowly consumed. It’s Prairie Home Companion meets Moulin Rouge: an ensemble movie that wants Companion’s cohesion, and a musically and visually stylized film that falls short of the audacity of Rouge.

The film opens with us shadowing Pigoil, manager of the Chansonia, a popular theater, as he hustles through the house and backstage, greeting patrons, and whisking past the pleas of performers and stagehands. He reaches the dressing room of his wife, an actress, to tell her of the vacation he’s planning for them in the coming year, 1936. Unfortunately, he discovers she’s been having an affair. This is not the only heartbreak that night. In the upstairs office, ownership of the Chansonia is passing into the hands of the self-interested don (or whatever the French version of a don is), Galapiat.

By spring, the Chansonia is closed and in disrepair. Her denizens are scattered and Pigoil lives in demi-destitution with his son, Jo Jo. When Jo Jo is arrested for truancy – he’s been playing accordion in the touristy parts of Paris – Pigoil is deemed an unfit parent by the government, and Jo Jo is sent to live with his adulterous mother until Pigoil can better care for him. Determined to win the trust of the state back, and therefore regain custodianship of his son, Pigoil focuses his energy on revitalizing the Chansonia and pulling together the old team.

If this had been the only story, or even the most prominent story in this movie, the film would have benefited greatly. Pigoil’s motivations are, essentially, what drive the movie, but they are quickly diluted by a stream of external conflicts and other character relationships. Detours include: the union agenda of the communist stagehand, Milou; the faded vaudevillian, Jacky Jaquet, ingratiating himself to the anti-Semitic nationalist agenda of Galapiat; the agoraphobic songwriter, Radio Man; the romance between Milou and la belle chanteuse, Douce, who arrives in Paris to seek her fortune as a performer.

All of these characters work toward the restoration of the Chansonia and their efforts are met with varying degrees of success. However, each character gets virtually equal story time. With the exception of Pigoil, we never really get to explore why restoring the theater is so personally important to each.

In fact, relationships and motivations that we should care most about aren’t given much more than superficial treatment. Milou, the communist stagehand is in love with Douce, and she him, but we don’t really know what it is about the other that attracts them to each other. They’re just both young and beautiful. As Douce sings a heartbreaking ballad in front of an audience, we see that she’s really serenading Milou. But why he’s so deserving of this ballad is a mystery.

The film also drops the ball on Jacky Jaquet, who sucks up to Galapiat. He’s been performing his schtick, gussied up with anti-Jewish rhetoric (that’s right anti-Jewish schtick; I said it) for a local chapter of a right-wing nationalist party to which the evil theater owner belongs. Commie, Milou catches wind of this and invites Pigoil to sit in on a meeting with him to catch Jaquet red-handed. As fate would have it, however, the very day Pigoil sees Jaquet with the wingnuts is the day that Jaquet decides to turn the tables on the nationalist jerks and mock them. How convenient. Now we never get to see Pigoil confront Jaquet about his right-wing sycophancy. Which makes me wonder why there was ever a sub-story of Jaquet’s dalliance with the French Nazi sympathizers anyway. Why bring the ball if you’re not going to play the game?

This however, gets to what I suspect Paris 36 felt it was necessary to do: say everything. It seems like writer and director Christophe Barratier wanted to make sure to address everything that was going in Paris in 1936. Poverty, union strife … oh, and a little issue of Nazi encroachment, and subsequent nationalist thug movements, all throughout Europe. And if you’re going to make a movie set in Paris, you’d damned well better have a love story, right? The film would have benefitted more from simplification: people rallying around a theater to save it as seen through the eyes of Pigoil, not necessarily through the lives of the ensemble. We could have witnessed the big history of 1936 through Pigoil’s eyes, and avoided the necessity of the detours. For instance, La Vie en Rouge unfolded over several decades that included two world wars, and did not subject us to any classroom sidebars. Still, we knew Edith Piaf wasn’t unaffected by what was going on in the country.

Despite all this, the film is ultimately watchable. The actors turn in solid performances. Kad Merad and Gerard Jugnot, are delightful as Jaquet and Pigoil, respectively. And Nora Arnezeder approaches Douce with such a warm ease that I’m hoping to see more of her in the future. With the exception of Clovis Cornillac, whose lover-commie Milou reads like a stilted imitation of DiCaprio’s Romeo, and Bernard-Pierre Donadieu, whose Galapiat comes across less as an unscrupulous theater owner and more as a Gallic, goutish Gargamel, it’s easy to believe these characters are three dimensional. The music is beautiful, and I’ve added the soundtrack to my to-buy list. The ballad Douce sings to Milou, from the stage, is heartbreaking and makes this reviewer seriously want to revisit her French just so she can learn the song. The highly presentational musical number around the end of act two is crazy fun, but as it’s the only time the movie audience is performed to directly, it seems a bit out of place. And the art direction paints Paris in the classic Hollywood vision of the location: every moment a romance, every vista a masterpiece that vibrates with color and the imagined sound of a weeping accordion. It’s how we all think Paris is until we arrive and discover a dingier, smokier, sweatier city than our collective imagination had prepared us for. However, that art direction also weakens the ugliness of the nationalists and the very real poverty of Depression Era France. If the movie were to focus on those realities at all, it may have been better served had it looked less like Amelie and more like La Vie En Rouge.

Paris 36 is most enjoyable if you know that every ingredient in this burrito bowl is going to eventually merge into a savory mulch. But that thin meaty bit you think you may have snagged? Under the flavor sludge? That’s Pigoil’s story. It surfaces every now and then. Enjoy it when it does.