Whimsical and toothless, the French musical Paris 36 looks back at the lead-up to World War II through such rose-colored glasses that it almost makes you long to live under the shadow of uncertainty as fascists rise to power. At least you’d get to band together with your friends to save a beloved old theater, which is exactly what happens in this movie, very similarly to the 2005 Judi Dench vehicle Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Paris takes place a little earlier, beginning with the transition from 1935 to 1936, as striking workers contrast with bitter nationalists in the battle for political supremacy in France. The denizens of a quaint music hall called Chansonia find themselves suddenly out of work when a local proto-fascist gangster/businessman takes over the venue and shuts it down. Months later, veteran manager Pigoil (Jugnot) has lost custody of his son and is struggling to make ends meet, when two of his cohorts strong-arm the thuggish owner into giving them time to turn the theater around.
Luckily for them, they happen on a beautiful young starlet named Douce (Arnezeder), who wanders into the theater one day. Lots of scrappy-underdog triumphing ensues, with the requisite third-act setback before the big success. Writer-director Barratier blankets the film in nostalgia, with sets and songs that hearken back to vaudeville and classic films. It’s a pleasant enough story, if entirely predictable, and Arnezeder is radiant and charismatic. But the fuzzy tone and broad, sentimental performances lose their charm fairly quickly, and only one musical number has the old-style razzle-dazzle to truly impress.
Late in the film, when serious tragedy finally comes to the staff of Chansonia, it’s jarring and unearned, and eventually undermined by a happy, optimistic ending. Somewhere in there, a war gears up to start, but the movie remains aloof; at least in Mrs. Henderson, the bombs were falling right on the theater. Here, danger mostly stays blissfully remote, and that sense of not a whole lot being at stake ends up robbing the movie of any potential power.