Christophe Barratier's Paris 36 (originally issued in France as Faubourg 36) is a remarkable homage to filmmakers past, most notably Marcel Carné, and to a multitude of styles and looks out of 1930s French cinema. But it's also more than engaging enough on its own terms, so that someone who knows or cares nothing about 1930s cinema can fully enjoy it. The tendency in Hollywood homages to past styles and eras is to remake specific films and plots -- Barratier has gone for something more subtle, in a look more than a plot, and a cast of characters, and just happens to have seized upon a period (the mid-'30s political and economic upheavals besetting France) that might be newly relevant in 2009's economic environment. His cast of characters all seem to have analogs in the French film world of 75 years ago -- Clovis Cornillac's Milou recalls any number of roles played by Jean Gabin early in his career, while Kad Merad's Jacky Jacquet, in all of his impersonations, directly refers to Fernandel on more than one occasion in the course of the plot. Similarly, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu's Galapiat recalls Marcel Herrand's gangster from Carné's Children of Paradise -- and the influences of poetic realism and film noir run all through this movie, very strongly. None of the rest here would work as well as it does, however, were it not for two brilliant and pivotal performances, by Gérard Jugnot as Pigoil, whose story rests at the center of several interlocking tales, and Nora Arnezeder's Douce, who is beguilingly mysterious.
Their performances are all good enough and their parts finely written enough that one finds oneself fascinated by these characters, whose attributes all seem rooted in the conflicts of their times. One well-meaning but seemingly talentless would-be performer first achieves success entertaining French rightists with anti-Semitic monologues; another, a would-be leftist, must face the fact that he has never been as brave as his demeanor suggests; and others must face coming of age amid an era of burgeoning chaos -- both political and economic. The plot and script are well supported by art director Jean Rabasse and costume designer Carine Sarfati, who have imbued the movie with a beautiful period look, captured in exquisite detail by cinematographer Tom Stern -- this is a great-looking movie that must be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. And although this is not primarily a musical, there are some finely staged and choreographed production numbers at a key point in the plot (the latter courtesy of Corinne Devaux), which stay with the styles of their period sufficiently to retain the illusion of verisimilitude. Barratier has woven all of these disparate elements -- along with a few jabs at the undertow of xenophobia in French politics that seems to refer to some contemporary events -- into a surprisingly fast-moving whole. Paris 36 is 120 minutes of drama, romance, comedy, and music (some of it punctuated by violence) that might almost seem too short for some -- not that there is anything lacking, to be sure, but simply because it's such a marvelous conjuring trick to carry off for two hours.