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Paris 36: French frolic



The Criterion Collection's March 24 DVD release of The Last Metro was followed approximately a week later by the arrival of Paris 36 to our shores, and the pair would make an interesting double feature for anyone willing to hoof it between the local art-house and the home theater.

Like Francois Truffaut's 1980 effort, this new picture, co-written and directed by Christophe Barratier (The Chorus), centers on the coping mechanisms of a French theatrical troupe as they try to pry loose the fingers of the fascists who threaten their very lifeline. And how do they cope? By embracing that age-old adage, the one stipulating that the show must go on.

While The Last Metro is set in the midst of World War II (1942, to be exact), this new work takes place in 1936 (hence the title), three years before the conflict got its official start. Yet political rumblings were already being felt, and Paris 36's primary villain, the right-wing Galpiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), is eventually seen co-hosting Nazi rallies. For now, he's merely content with closing down the neighborhood theater, the Chansonia. But Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), the venue's dedicated stage manager, gathers a group of loyal comrades -- a labor organizer (Clovis Cornillac), a lovely ingénue (Nora Arnezeder) and a spectacularly unfunny comedian (Kad Merad) -- and together they work to bring the establishment back to its former glory.

Barratier crams in so many subplots and ironic twists of fate that the result is often like watching hot water flowing over the sides of a pot boiling furiously on the stovetop -- the story strand involving Pigoil's abandonment by an unfaithful wife seems extraneous, and the identity of the ingénue's father is simply absurd. But for all its shortcomings, Paris 36 is breezy entertainment, full of memorable characters, deft at doling out drama and comedy in equal measure, and sparked by original musical compositions drafted in the style of the day. It's clearly old-fashioned entertainment, and while the blue-hairs will dig it, I suspect many of us with brown, blonde, black or red hair will embrace it as well.

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