Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Chanson Musical: Paris 36

Forget polka bands and Lawrence Welk. In the right context, the accordion is capable of truly romantic and sophisticated sounds. Think instead of Edith Piaf and her milieu. It is that classic French cabaret and music hall atmosphere that inspired the sights and sounds of Christophe Barratier’s Paris 36 (trailer here), which opens in limited release this Friday.

Having worked his entire life at Chansonia, the closure of the music hall is devastating to Pigoil. Without visible means of support, the unemployed stagehand loses custody of his son Jojo (a mean accordionist) to his estranged wife. What kind of person would shutdown the Chansonia, one of the few sources of joy for the working class Faubourg neighborhood of northern Paris? That would be Galpiat, the local Fascist sympathizing mobster. Desperate to regain his parental rights, Pigoil, with some hardy colleagues, tries to reopen the foreclosed Chansonia.

At first Galpiat is uninterested, but when he starts romancing an aspiring singer many years his junior, he suddenly has use for a music hall. Much to the delight of Pigoil and company, Douce can actually sing, as well as look pretty on stage. In fact, she is an instant hit after her very first performance. Things are looking up and love is in the air, but not for Galpiat. Instead, it is Milou, the dashing union agitator-stagehand who has stolen Dolce’s heart, so trouble is inevitable.

Frankly, the politically charged melodrama of Paris 36 is over-wrought and tiresome. However, there is an appealing energy to the film and the musical numbers are fantastic. Reinhardt Wagner’s original music is sentimental to be sure, but also utterly charming, often employing a distinctly romantic accordion sound

Of the four primary musical leads, most fare quite well. Gérard Jugnot is game enough in the showcase numbers, and is often touching as the everyman Pigoil. Perfectly cast as the Chansonia’s ingénue, newcomer Nora Arnezeder really can sing and shows surprising depth in her dramatic scenes. Perhaps the most effective is Kad Merad as Jacky, the quartet’s tragic comic-relief, who sells his soul for the sound of applause. Unfortunately, as the radical stagehand Milou, Clovis Cornillac seems to be doing a terrible Brando impression throughout the film. Always distracting, he completely kills the credibility of the love scenes with Douce and seems visibly lost in the big show-stopper.

Thanks to Tom Stern’s flashy cinematography and Jean Rabasse’s striking sets, Paris 36 is a consistently exciting sight to behold. Its big, bold musical numbers are entertaining throwbacks to musicals of a bygone age. Regrettably, the film takes its dramatic situations and ideology far too seriously, but when it concentrates on being a musical, it is very entertaining. It opens this Friday (4/3) in New York at the Regal Union Square 14 and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal.