Paris 36

Sony Pictures Classics


By Michael T. Dennis


Paying homage to the past while bringing a new slant or modern perspective to bear on its conventions is no small charge, and this is the challenge undertaken only partially successfully by “Paris 36,” from writer-director Christophe Barratier.


Inexplicably, the title “Faubourg 36” has been translated as “Paris 36” for the international release, as if images of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral will not be enough to orient American viewers.  The setting is the fictional Parisian neighborhood of Faubourg, where the economic downturn of the 1930s, along with a villainous financier, has left the cast and crew of the Chansonia music hall jobless.


In a climate of political turmoil and economic uncertainty, the characters briefly go their own ways.  Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), the veteran stagehand, copes with the recent departure of his wife and the challenge of being a single father to his young son, the accordion-playing Jojo (Maxence Perrin).  Caught up in the revolutionary politics of the day, Milou (Clovis Cornillac) chases corruption and women, wherever they try to hide.  Aspiring comic Jacky (Kad Merad) sees the theater's closure as his big break, sneaking into the abandoned stage for impromptu performances.


When Jojo is caught begging to support his penniless father, welfare agents send him to live with his mother, who has settled down with a new, financially stable husband in a distant part of France.  The loss of his son inspires Pigoil to mount a revival at the theater, enlisting Milou and Jacky as well as others from among the ranks of the unemployed.  The fortuitous arrival of a young singer named Douce (Nora Arnezeder) seems at first to be a blessing, but quickly turns into a major complicating factor as men vie for her affections and rival promoters compete for her services.


Meanwhile, Pigoil struggles to maintain a relationship with his absent son.  Milou's politics of equality lose much of their idealism, as extremist groups gain popularity and Jacky realizes that his skills as a comic draw few laughs.  Friendships are strained and hearts are broken before the community ultimately unites under a belief that the show must go on, making a last stand with their musical revue.


Writer-director Christophe Barratier has spoken at length about his influences in making “Paris 36”.  Working with historical advisor Pierre Philippe (himself a filmmaker), Barratier was striving for not only an accurate depiction of France in the moments before World War II, but also a sense of the films made during that era.  This engagement with history is evident in Barratier's Oscar-nominated feature debut, 2004's “The Chorus”.


“Paris 36” exhibits the tendencies of Poetic Realism, a loosely defined style that permeated French filmmaking in the mid 1930s.  Characterized by stories about the lives and hopes of working-class citizens, the Poetic Realist filmmakers included such luminaries as Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, and Jean Renoir.  Their films frequently made reference to the looming specter of social change while espousing a pessimistic view, often seeing their characters come to a bitter end.  The world Barratier imagines is very much that social fringe.  In the role of Pigoil, Gérard Jugnot musters the same image of an imperfect everyman that was so well actualized by Jean Gabin in a long list of Poetic Realist films.


Barratier claims not only affinity with the Poetic Realists, but also the American musical stylings of Busby Berkeley.  Indeed, the musical numbers are the highlight of “Paris 36”, eclipsing much of the bittersweet sentiment that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  The ending, though melancholy in its way, is a happy one, thus less tied to the conclusions of Duvivier's “Pépé le Moko” or Carné's “Le Jour se lève,” and more in line with the comfortable closure typical of Hollywood in the 1930s, or anytime since.


The emotional failure of the father-son subplot involving Pigoil's efforts to regain the custody and respect of Jojo is disappointment, both because it has been done effectively before, and also because of the way it hinges on a poor performance from a child actor.  (One wonders if young Maxence Perrin, the director's cousin, was cast for his thespian skills or kinship with the director.)  Jojo speaks little, and there is no moment between him and his father that makes us want to root for their shared happiness.


Overall, “Paris 36” is a successful replica of a Poetic Realist film, capturing the elusive tone and basking in its period setting.  Less topical than later French films that fully explored the explosive politics of the pre-war years, it instead mentions these important issues only to let them linger.  Even with access to a modern perspective on the past, Barratier adds little of his own, and “Paris 36” registers as a string of nice moments, lacking a unifying theme to hold them together.


Poetic Realism is not the only historical movement to generate reinvestigation.  In neo-noirs and revisionist Westerns, filmmakers have added their voices to a classic genre, often balancing appreciation with indictment and sometimes creating wholly new masterpieces. “Paris 36” is more of a reproduction that a new work that follows the trail of history to reveal its unique contribution.




Pigoil – Gérard Jugnot

Milou – Clovis Cornillac

Jacky – Kad Merad

Douce – Nora Arnezeder

Monsieur TSF – Pierre Richard

Galapiat – Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu

Jojo – Maxence Perrin

Célestin – François Morel

Viviane – Elisabeth Vitali

Lebeaupin – Christophe Kourotchkne

Grevoul – Eric Naggar

Detective Tortil – Eric Prat

Blaise – Reinhardt Wagner




Galatee Films, Pathe Production, Constantin Film, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Logline Studios, Novo Arturo Films, Blue Screen Productions with the participation of Canal+ and TPS Star, in association with Banque Populaire Images 8 with the support of Eurimages and the Centre National de le Cinematographie, Procirep, and the Media program of the European Union

Produced by Jacques Perrin and Nicolas Mauvernay

Co-Producer, Romain LeGrand

Associate Producers, Christophe Barratier, Martin Moskowicz, and Christian Benoist

Written and directed by Christophe Barratier

Adapted and with dialog by Christophe Barratier and Julien Rappeneau

Based on an original idea by Frank Thomas, Jean-Michel Derenne, and Reinhardy Wagner

Cinematography, Tom Stern

Editor, Yves Deschamps

Original Score, Reinhardt Wagner

Song Lyrics, Frank Thomas

Choreography, Corinne Devaux

Sound, Daniel Sobrino, Roman Dymny, and Vincent Goujon

Production Manager,  François Hamel

Costumes, Carine Sarfati

Sets, Jean Rabasse