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The wonderful and incredibly engaging thing about Christophe Ballatier's Faubourg 36 is that it has all the graceful elan of a well-designed bande dessiné ("comic book" to you, bub) without any of the drawbacks that have afflicted adaptation after adaptation. It does not attempt to flesh out a simple story, whether with "everyday detail" or with the conventions of live-action film. Working the other way, Mr Ballatier has taught his cameras to embody the swooshes and pows of graphic illustration, making his shots extensions of the panels in comic book. On top of all that, he has made the astounding discovery that the big Hollywood musical set piece works very well deconstructed into a series of stationary frames. The actors are free to sing and dance in these frames, but only a little, not so much as to break the illusion of an animated page.
Not that the filmmaker set out to sustain any such illusion. I have absolutely no idea of the degree of Mr Ballatier's awareness of what he has done. It suffices that he has done it, and you can see for yourself from the very first shot. It is an extremely long tracking shot, involving a fair amount of CGI, I should say, but it reads like a classic, Hitchcockian tracking shot, taking us from a height over Paris to the backstage of a music hall in one seamless sweep. Although very well done, the shot is not remarkable; what's remarkable is the film's ability to sustain the illusion of indefagitable omniscience when the long shot is over. Mr Ballatier achieves this illusion, I maintain, by always asking, consciously or not, what a great graphic storyteller would do. By following the conventions not of film but of sequential drawings, moreover, he mounts his story about feisty, working-class Parisians in the depths of the Depression onto the most suitable armature imaginable. Watching Faubourg 36 is as elating as turning the pages of a favorite hero's latest adventure: the mind melds with the action, and the medium simply dissolves.
The result is a motion picture that, while always stylish and visually punchy, never looks "stylized": there are no Ken Russell scenes that clearly gratify the director's obscure fantasies. Comic books may look stylized to feminist theoreticians, but they hardly seem stylized to their intended consumers, who are unlikely to know what stylization is but would almost certainly be disgusted by it. Stylization is the whisper that interrupts your dream to tell you that you are dreaming. There is none of that in Faubourg 36. Mr Ballatier counts on his excellent cast to engage your sympathies, and once you care about Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), Douce (Nora Arnezeder), Milou (Clovis Cornillac) and Jacky (Kad Merad), the filmmaker cocoons you in their struggle to revive the Chansonia, the music hall in the faubourg — the "nabes" — that is the hub of his story. You would not have a better seat in the Chansonia itself.
Which faubourg, the movie's hero, Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot) is asked. He shrugs; he knows only one. This bit of caginess allows the movie to represent not only all the outer arrondissements of Paris (except of course the Seizième) but the entire French working class, which in 1936 voted for the Front Populaire, a leftist government that is fondly remembered for ordaining annual vacations for everybody. For the first time, many Frenchmen actually saw the sea, or spent more than a day away from the workplace. It's a partial indictment, at least, of the French Revolution that it took well over century after 1789 for many of the basic decencies of life to be distributed among the people. In fairness, 1936 redressed many wrongs that arose only after the Revolution, with the spread of industrialization throughout France's urban areas. The peasants had become protelarians.
And the aristocrats had given way to corrupt fixers such as the villain of Faubourg 36, the beady-eyed Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Strikebreaker, slumlord, and state-protected gangster, Galapiat rules from the mezzanine of his Arabian-Nights-themed cabaret, where bare-breasted beauties always seem to be gesturing amidst more amply draped tables. Always nattily turned out himself, Galapiat is physically reminiscent of caricatures of Louis Philippe: the embodiment of a world in which ordinary people can't get a break.
Pigoil quite desperately needs a break. He loses his job at the Chansonia, the local music hall, after the owner, pressured by Galapiat, shoots himself. He loses his wife, a star of the Chansonia's revue, to faux-Spaniard Tony Rossignol. And he loses his beloved son, Jojo (Maxence Perrin), when Jojo's mother, who has settled down to provincial respectability, is smitten by remorse, the police sweep Jojo off the street and into her arms: now Pigoil is utterly bereft. In order to muster the steady job that he needs in order to regain custody of his son, Pigoil decides to re-animate the abandoned Chansonia.
The engaging backstager that follows involves Douce, a beautiful young singer of mysterious origins, Milou, a socialist agitator, Jacky, an agile but uninspired mimic (Kad Merad), and a recluse known as "Radio Man" (Pierre Richard), all of whom come together in the best show-must-go-on tradition. The singer becomes a star, and is lured away from the Chansonia, sending it back to failure; she is retrieved the by the recluse, who turns out to have a very good reason to claim her. As the movie approaches its second jubilant climax, this one involving the big production number that, while glorious, is not glittering, Galapiat moves in with his nefarious demands, and must be dealt with.
If this is comic-book history and comic-book romance, you won't be troubled by the thought until you try to describe Faubourg 36 to friends. Then, as unaccustomed to sketching the power of lucid and powerful photography as your friends might be to trying to make sense of such talk, you will probably stumble back on unsatisfying descriptives such as "fable," "lighter than air," or even, despite everything that I have said, "stylized." It will probably take audiences a little while to learn how to watch Faubourg 36; I don't think that there has ever been a movie quite like it. Once the trick of it is understood, there will be imitators; for it has got to be cheaper to make a movie like this one than it is to make a Ratatouille.
As with any good backstager, there must be music, and the Reinhardt Wagner's songs, which sound like tributes to Charles Trenet, are amiable concoctions that just might grow on one. (April 2009)
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