Christophe Barratier said "Paris 36" began when friends gave him some songs. They were new, but written in the style of the 1930s. As a director, Barratier saw the cinematic possibilities and decided to use them in a film he was going to write.
"They had a charm. Something very exquisite about the period and the songs were like little sketches of modest characters modest people, a little bit fighting for the future," Barratier said. "Something about brotherhood, love. And it was very charming because it was really in the perfume of the old Paris before the war."
The Paris of the 1930s is well known to the larger world because of the music, books, paintings, films and photographs which came out of the period.
Barratier wanted to use new camera techniques to capture the iconic time visually, while telling the stories of love and political conflict roiling through Paris at the time. Groups on the left and the extreme right wing were very active, and sometimes fought in the streets.
A major issue Barratier said was the law guaranteeing two weeks vacation every year.
"And that was a revolution in France," Barratier said. "Each Parisian worker was dreaming about the seaside, and the magnificent future."
Of course, even as they celebrated, the world was heading toward another war.
"So it was really like a dance on a volcano, and that was really rich in conflict," he said.
Christophe Barratier set "Paris 36" in a vaudeville theater taken over by workers after an unscrupulous loanshark tries to shut it down. The effort fails until a young woman called Douce becomes a star attraction, and the films central love interest.
Douce is played by newcomer Nora Arnezeder. She said she was a fan of Barratier's earlier film "The Chorus," which was a hit in Europe and did well in the indie circuit in the U.S. She said she was attracted to the characters, but there was something else important about Barratier's work.
"Not a lot of directors do music, you know movies with music, and I really liked it," Douce said.
The film carries echoes of great French love stories, including "La Boheme" and "Children of Paradise." Or maybe Barratier admits it steals them.
"Directors are all robbers," admits Barratier.
However, they ran into an unexpected problem -- they couldn't find enough of Paris that looked like Paris of the 1930s. It's a similar problem the Coen Brothers faced when they recently shot a movie set in 1950s Twin Cities. They couldn't find a lot of places that looked like St. Louis Park where they grew up. The Coen Brothers made do, but Barratier had to rebuild a lot of Paris in a studio in the Czech Republic.
Nora Arnezeder said the film did well in France.
"I say the truth; a lot of people were crying and were really really touched," she said.
Arnezeder said "Paris 36" tells a universal story of people living through hard times, and that resonates just now. Christophe Barratier agrees.
"The movie doesn't change life, but it can change some hours of that life and that is at least a little bit good," Arnezeder said.
Which some days is all a film maker can hope for.