Paris 36 tries to do a dozen different things, and does none of them well. But even that description may not be harsh enough, because it makes the film sound ambitious. It's not. Director Christophe Barratier, whose The Chorus was a quality rendition of an age-old formula, doesn't even pretend to give much thought to any of the disparate elements he assembles here. This is one of those middlebrow period-piece comedies that mistakes frenzy for energy and spotless soundstage gloss for visual style. It may play well with certain audiences for whom "arthouse" is synonymous with "no explosions," but there's really nothing to see here.
Well, in theory there's a lot to see, including but not limited to the following: a would-be portrait of the French Popular Front in the 1930's; the story of a bunch of unemployed workers banding together to put on a show and save a historic theater; the tragedy of an old workhorse (Gérard Jugnot) who loses custody of his accordion prodigy son to his cheating wife when the theater first closes down; a romance between a communist rabblerouser (and stagehand, and actor!) and a singing ingénue (Nora Arnezeder) taken under the wing of a fascist loan shark (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu); the spiritual rebirth of an old orchestra conductor who has spent the last 20 years alone with his radio; a no-talent comic (Kad Merad) who sinks to performing for the Nazis after being booed off stage by everyone else, though he is of course much too lovable to actually be an anti-Semite.