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‘Paris 36’ sweetly mixes political, personal

Roger Moore The Orlando Sentinel

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Because, as always, those French can never seem to find a balance.

The socialist Leon Blum was the new French prime minister. The leftists took heart and staged strikes. The rightists started wearing Chaplin mustaches and giving each other those funny German salutes.

And in the middle of it all: a struggling theater, a thuggish landlord and an ingenue who just might save it.

“Paris 36” is an utterly charming and sentimental French melodrama with music, a nostalgic look backstage and back in history to 1936, a tumultuous year when France became so politically divided that it was easy pickings for the rightest right wingers of them all, the Nazis.

When Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) muscles the manager of the Chansonia Theater into suicide, the veteran and utterly apolitical stage manager, Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), and his mates “occupy” the joint and resolve to put on a show.

Not right away, of course. The night of the suicide, Pigoil catches his wife cheating and spends a few months drinking and letting his accordion-wizard son (Maxence Perrin) support him. Until the cops take the kid away.

That’s the last straw for Pigoil, finally radicalized enough to let the handsome communist Milou (Clovis Cornillac) help him take over the theater and, with their inept impressionist Jacky Jacquet (Kad Merad), present a revue at a time when a lot of theater performers need work.

Their only hope is Douce (Nora Arnezeder), the lovely ingenue, a gamine – all the best words for pretty young things are French! – who sings, shows a little leg and gives them hope that they’ll eventually make the rent.

The gamin is “sponsored” by the lecherous landlord and lusted after by the dashing Bolshevik. The stage manager pines for his absent son and nobody, it seems, is playing the role in life that they were truly meant to play.

Writer-director Christophe Barratier (“The Chorus”) deftly balances the political – strikes, rabble-rousing speeches from right and left – with the personal: Douce’s story, Pigoil’s quest to win back his boy.

And Barratier sprinkles music throughout, from the charming accordion music that Jojo and an accomplice take to the streets to the big Threepenny Opera-style show that is what the theater folk eventually decide will be their salvation.

The violence of masked strike-breakers, the anti-Semitism of the rich conservatives, the dishonest idealism of the communists, all are mere set dressing for an enchanting, lyrical story of lives entangled on the cobblestone streets of the City of Love in the last years before World War II.

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