The first beauty of Faubourg 36 – aka Paris 36, or whatever we uncultured Barbarian Americans are calling it – is that the story of the film is wrapped into the story of the story.
Dedicated but talent-short amateur performers keep the paint fresh at a Paris people’s theater in 1936. A Hitler-loving meanie financier treats the theater as a socialist bug to be crushed under his jackboot. Desperate one night to soothe a rowdy crowd from their desperately lacking performance, they send out the pretty cigarette girl and …. can she sing!
The second beauty of “Faubourg 36” is the angel-voiced debutante Nora Arnezeder, who comes across here, at least for one movie, as the next great French star. Such an assessment can be fleeting – living as we are in the Age of Lindsay Lohan – but you sense that immediate “it” as she rises out of and above this well-meaning but earthbound production. Arnezeder is a nineteen-year-old just waiting for her Amelie. If this isn’t it, then one suspects it won’t be long before she finds it.
Hence, the young unknown saves the film in the film in which the young unknown saves the show. The world is a stage. The stage is a world. That’s entertainment. There are certainly many other things going on in “Faubourg 36,” the second sentimental semi-musical from director Christopher Barratier of “Les Choristes.” The wife of the theater manager, the one-time star of the show, has left him and taken their accordeon-playing son. A playboy electrician splits time between organizing socialist workers in the working class district and wooing the new sensation.
Our sweet-faced heroine has mysteries of her own, ones that are mysteries to her, as well. And fitting in somewhere in all this is a man who hasn’t left his home in decades, and whose lone contact with the outside world is his radio.
It’s not a musical exactly, at least not a classically integrated Freed-Unit affair. No one sings their dialogue. Nor does Cyd Charisse show up for a ten-minute dance. It hues more closely to the Busby Berkeley revues, as the music swirls around the story’s mushy core. The character motivation is inexplicable outside of the sentimental spell of what I’ll call “musical realism.” Which is to say not realism at all.
Filmed with the honeyed drabness of socialist realist paintings, the film takes places in a working class Paris neighborhood of the 1930s. It might be the only film celebrating the era of the French socialist Leon Blum (1936 France was the wrong place and time to be a pacifist.). Through its contrived rivalry between its socialist heroes and Nazi villains, Faubourg 36 does engage in slight social commentary. This is most obvious in the subplot of its Jewish comedian, taking money out of desperation to pantomime Jewish stereotypes in front of a Nazi organization. While it doesn’t use Naziism as an engine of maudlin comedy like Life is Beautiful, it does produce considerable flinching.
So here’s the thing about this one. At first blush, it’s far too silly and sentimental to appeal to my personal taste. Yet what do you want from a musical? Method acting? Al Pacino intensity? I wouldn’t criticize “Singin’ in the Rain” for lacking those elements. Should I criticize The Godfather for its shortage of pep and dance numbers?
I’ll use Arnezeder as the tiebreaker. Pass granted. It’s not everyday that you see a star born.