Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)
by Jef Burnham
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One wants very much to like French filmmaker Christophe Barratier’s Paris 36. After all, the musical numbers are enjoyable and actress Nora Arnezeder is a pleasure to watch. Plus, the predominantly accordion score and the cartoonish Parisian setting is precisely what those of us who have never been to Paris imagine it to be all the time, but there’s something so ingenuine about the whole thing.
The style of the film is uncomfortably detached from much of the subject matter. Set against the backdrop of workers fighting for the right to unionize and the rising anti-Semitic sentiments of 1936, the film has the potential to be a powerful and frightening historical account, but all this is glossed over with nostalgia. The social horrors of the period retain little intensity as the film switches from the children performing in the streets to brutal violence with no change in atmosphere. Certainly, as a viewer, you will be uncomfortable with scenes of violence, racism, and one scene of near-rape, but it’s for the wrong reason. Imagine someone beat to death with a club after Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number— it’s just out of place.
The film is essentially a light musical. This is not apparent until later in the film, after the storylines have all been shallowly developed. The film’s slight lack of humanism is at first confusing and mysterious, but you come to realize that it was all in an attempt to set up a plausible musical. Recall in Cabaret how the film, though a musical, drew cynicism from the depicted era’s rise of the Third Reich. Some of the numbers are downright frightening in their reflection in the popular mindset of the era. This is what Paris 36 had the potential to be, but the infrequent attempts at historical relevancy and the uncomfortably unbridled optimism lead to some unintentionally appalling juxtaposition. As such, it feels as though the film is but a vehicle for the musical numbers rather than allowing the numbers to spring naturally from the story.
That having been said, the musical numbers, though incongruous with the social plights depicted, are thoroughly enjoyable and the best part of the film. It is unfortunate that the film suffers from a grievous duality of focus.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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