I don’t like fantasies and they are particularly inappropriate when presented as an historical story of recent past. This is about Paris in 1936 when the old political guard of a French republic was riddled with financial scandals and immoral maneuvering, and was swept aside by the poorest classes. The sweepers were an odd amalgamation of leftist-socialist, communist and anarchist, and they inspired a violent reaction by right-wing nationalist factions, who were fascinated by Hitler and Mussolini.
Director/writer Christophe Barratier has created a fantasy section of Paris, The Faubourg, with a theater that is failing. His three main characters, Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), a stagehand, Jacky (Kad Merad, a former sandwich man who has a delusion that he is a first-rate impressionist and Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a virulent leftwinger who preys on women, band together to try to save it. Thrown into the mix is the neighborhood “godfather,” Galpiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who is antagonistic, to say the least. This could have been interesting if it weren’t so uninvolving, and if it were presented realistically.
The problem for me is that it is sheer fantasy and is filmed as such. There is no capturing the Paris of the 30’s (the film was shot in Czechoslovakia), although that’s what they intended, apparently. You have the feel you are watching characters in a location that never existed. One of the wonderful things about “Casablanca” (1942) was that, despite the hokey titles, which are almost comical today, you really felt as if you were in the real city of Casablanca, even though what Warner Bros. presented was as far from the real Casablanca as New York City is from Ponca City. It doesn’t have to be accurate to be realistic.
“Paris 36” is doubly disappointing. There’s no reason that the film couldn’t have been filmed in Paris. There are areas around Montmartre that are still reminiscent of Paris in the 30’s. So what Barratier presents is a set so phony that it robs the film of the ambience it advertises in its title. But, in addition to the sets, the characters lack credibility, as does the story.