“The movie was inspired by the songs,” writer-director Christophe Barratier (“Les Choristes”) said of his new film, “Paris 36,” in a recent Dallas interview. The picture is about a group of friends in a Parisian neighborhood who try to reopen their recently-closed musical hall; the story is set against the election of the leftist Popular Front government in France in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression. The success of the venture is eventually sealed by the arrival of a young singer from the provinces called Douce, who becomes an overnight sensation.
The songs were bought to Barratier by composer Reinhardt Wagner and lyricist Frank Thomas some ten years ago, but only after the success of “Les Choristes” did he seriously get to work in developing a story around them. And the mid-thirties jumped out at him as the perfect setting.
“I love period movies—I like to travel back in time,” Barratier explained. “You’re really motivated, because you have to create everything on the stage. Actors have to be different from how they are in daily life. I like the universe you don’t see every day, and I think for the audience sometimes it’s good to escape a little bit from their daily life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s disconnected from people. It just means that it’s a more universal story than most.”
In 1936, he continued, “everybody was smelling, like, fresh air, and that’s why when you see pictures of the people in ’36 France, they were all smiling, dreaming of a new world, a wonderful life, and they didn’t see at that time that our frontier with Germany and Spain and Italy was raising the big danger of Nazism. We were dreaming about the seaside but four years later we see the German army. This was very ironic.”
The result, he said, is “a little bit a period movie, but not an old-fashioned movie. That’s why, for example, I didn’t shoot in Paris—not because I didn’t want to, because it was impossible. All these popular neighborhoods or areas have disappeared now. Now you cannot even recognize the streets. So I said to the set designer, let’s forget about reality, about documentary. Of course, we know everything about the period, but we will recreate our own Paris with our own vision. Even the colors are not the colors of Paris. My point was not to say, ‘Once upon a time in Paris,’ but our vision—much closer to a fairy-tale than to reality.
“It was a bit strange to imagine that we were in the north of Paris when we were in the north of Prague, but there is nothing of the city of Prague in the movie. It was really what we call a studio movie. The set is artificial, the songs you hear in the movie are not from the thirties—they were written today. The political movement called the SOC in the movie is my creation, like a synthesis of all the right-wing extreme movements. Here it looks like Paris, but you can see it’s not Paris. In France they say, ‘I like this movie because that’s life.’ For myself, I prefer to say I love this movie because that’s not real life.”
Still, Barratier added, “There is no anachronism. Everything you see in the movie could have happened.”
But what’s really important, Barratier emphasized, is the emotional core of the action that occurs in front of the carefully-constructed sets. “At the beginning they have different objectives, all these characters,” Barratier said. “She [Douce] wants to succeed, he [the stage manager played by Gerard Jugnot] wants to have a steady job, the other [activist Milou] wants to make a revolution, another [impressionist Jacky] wants to be on stage to do imitations. The different objectives become, step by step, one—to make a revival, to restore the dignity of life.”
And the emotions come from within. “I think that to write a good story, you have to bring to all the character—even the bad ones—something of you[rself],” Barratier said. “If you try to invent too much, you are on the way to cliché. I think the best lines in a movie are the lines you are really thinking, and not what you think your character would think.”
Newcomer Nora Arnezeder, who plays Douce, accompanied Barratier on the tour. “When Christophe called me to be a part of the movie, I went to the bookstore and I read book about the thirties,” the young chanteuse recalled.
And she auditioned. “I received two songs from the film, and I fell in love with the songs and I worked, like, three hours a day for two weeks to get ready for the audition,” Arnezeder said. “And at first he wanted to audition me for a small part because I was too young to play the lead. And I did it, and he liked it, and he said, I’m going to give you the script and you’re going to do an acting audition for the character of Douce.
“And I didn’t really know who was Douce and I read the script and I saw Douce, Douce, Douce! And I got scared. The singing audition went well, but I had to do an acting audition—a good acting audition. So I worked for about two weeks with a coach and a friend of mine who’s an acting teacher, and I went to the audition and felt like a bad actress. And I said okay, forget it, you will never have that role, you are too bad, and there are a lot of good actresses. And he called me two months later and said, okay, there are five actresses left, and you are going to do a screening test—dress up in 1930s clothes, and I’m going to film you. So I did it, and it was between a dream and a nightmare. And at the end, he made me a hug, and I said, oh, that’s a good sign, or he’s a really bad man.”
The actual shooting brought challenges, too—like fitting in with the rest of the cast. “It was hard, because they were all men,” Arnezeder recalled, “and they were, like, laughing and joking together. I didn’t understand why they were laughing, because it was not funny at all. Then after, when I got to know them, it was easier—I was just me.”
Barratier felt challenges on the huge set created outside Prague, too. “When I was on the set, I didn’t know where to put the camera because it was so beautiful everywhere,” he said. One element that made it easier, he admitted, was working with cinematographer Tom Stern, a regular member of Clint Eastwood’s team.
“It’s good to work with a master,” he said.