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A bracingly old-fashioned, lushly visualized showbiz meller set against pre-World War II Gallic political unrest, "Paris 36" is a loving tip of the hat to studio-bound French pics of the period that's plenty entertaining on its own terms.

A bracingly old-fashioned, lushly visualized showbiz meller set against pre-World War II Gallic political unrest, “Paris 36” is a loving tip of the hat to studio-bound French pics of the period that’s plenty entertaining on its own terms. Directed by “Les Choristes” helmer Christophe Barratier, pic will bow Sept. 24 in France and Oct. 3 in Canada, where its warmly received world preem as the Montreal fest opener will begin slow-burn positive word of mouth.

In the northeast Paris neighborhood of Faubourg, the May 1936 worker-friendly elections that installed Leon Blum’s left-wing alliance, Popular Front, have led to labor/management tensions in all strata of daily life.

Particularly hard-hit is Germain Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot, “Les Choristes”), stage manager at the working-class theater Chansonia. Distraught when his dancer wife Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali) leaves him for another man, Pigoil sinks deeper into despair when Chansonia is shuttered by scheming local kingpin Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), and his accordionist son Jojo (Maxence Perrin) is taken by the state and resettled with his mother.

Determined to make something of himself, Pigoil persuades gawky song-and-dance man Jacky Jacquet (Kad Merad) and idealistic young political firebrand Emile “Milou” Leibovich (Clovis Cornillac) to reopen the theater in volatile partnership with Galapiat. Their initially disastrous efforts receive a much-needed shot in the arm with the arrival of gorgeous young chantoosie Douce (newcomer Nora Arnezeder).

Schematically scripted tale revels in its multiple story arcs, but shows signs of battle fatigue in the later reels. Momentum is rescued by vet comedian Pierre Richard’s vigorous, canny perf as a local shut-in with a secret, as well as by more punchy original tunes.

Barratier’s subject matter can’t help but recall such pics as “Children of Paradise,” “Moulin Rouge” and recent Gallic hit “La Vie en rose.” Yet the helmer brings a distinctive sensibility to the proceedings, embracing the artifice of late-1930s French cinema with an ingratiating earnestness that depends more on rock-solid ensemble work than on a single, galvanizing perf.

Tech contributions are tops, led by Yves Deschamps’ snappy editing, the intricate production design of Jean Rabasse and a nimble widescreen mise-en-scene courtesy of Clint Eastwood’s regular d.p., Tom Stern. Pic was shot in Paris and at three Prague studios, with the central Faubourg district square built in a field outside the Czech capital. Composer Reinhardt Wagner can be seen in a walk-on as one of the singers auditioning for work at the revived club.

Paris 36

France-Germany-Czech Republic

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.)/Pathe (in France)/Alliance Vivafilm (in Canada) release of a Galatee Films, Pathe, France 2, France 3 Cinema, Logline Studios, Novo Arturo Films (France)/Constantin Film (Germany)/Blue Screen Prods. (Czech Republic) production. (International sales: Pathe Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Jacques Perrin, Nicolas Mauvernay. Co-producer, Romain Le Grand. Directed, written by Christophe Barratier, from an original idea by Frank Thomas, Jean-Michel Derenne, Reinhardt Wagner.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Tom Stern; editor, Yves Deschamps; music, Wagner; lyrics, Thomas; production designer, Jean Rabasse; costume designer, Carine Sarfati; sound (Dolby SRD), Daniel Sobrino, Roman Dymny, Vincent Goujon; choreographer, Corinne Devaux; assistant director, Valerie Othnin-Girard. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (opener, competing), Aug. 21, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Pierre Richard, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Maxence Perrin, Francois Morel, Elisabeth Vitali. (French dialogue)

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