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Paris 36 (PG-13) ****

By Roger Moore, The Orlando Sentinel

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Because, as always, the 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 are 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 Nazis.

When Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) muscles the manager of the Chansonia Theater into suicide, the veteran and utterly apolitical stage manager, Pigoil (Gérard 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 performers need work.

Their only hope is Douce (Nora Arnezeder), the lovely ingenue, a gamine who sings, shows a little leg and gives them hope that they’ll eventually make the rent. The gamine 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. He sprinkles music throughout the film, from the charming accordion music that Jojo and an accomplice take to the streets to the big Threepenny Opera-style show 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 are all mere set dressing for an enchanting, lyrical story of lives entangled on the cobblestone streets of Paris before World War II.

Cast: Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Nora Arnezeder.

Director/screenwriter: Christophe Barratier.

Producers: Nicolas Mauverney, Jacques Perrin.

A Sony Pictures Classic release. Running time: 120 minutes. Some sexuality and nudity, violence and brief language. Playing in Miami-Dade only: South Beach.

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