22 July 2001 | jameswtravers
A mesmerising musical a la francaise
Georges Gauthier is an ordinary working class young man who lives with his mother and sister but who dreams of becoming a professional singer. His dreams are dashed when his sister elopes with her boyfriend, leaving him to look after his mother. Then he gets an audition at his local music hall. Impressed, the director engages him and Georges embarks on a successful career, under the name "Papillon". Fearing that his fame and success will upset his mother, his girlfriend and his best friend Jules, Georges must keep his singing career a secret - but for how long...?
One of the most famous and best-loved of French film musicals, Romance de Paris is probably the closest that French cinema managed to get to recreating the glamour and charm of the traditional Hollywood musical of the 1930s and 40s. It was directed by Jean Boyer, the best (if not the only) French director of the genre. The film musical is not well represented in French cinema-lack of popular appeal for the genre meant that there was never going to be the funds to compete with the Hollywood films which starred the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. However, the few musical films which were made in France, mostly in the 1940s, are generally well made and have a whimsical Gallic appeal.
With its enchanting airs and loveable characters, Romance de Paris is one of the most uplifting and enchanting films made in France in the 1940s. This is quite remarkable when you consider that it was made during France's darkest hour (during the first year of Nazi occupation). It is a good example of the light, diverting kind of film which was popular with the French nation during this bleak period. The film's popularity was heightened by giving top billing to Charles Trenet, a stroke of genius as it turns out.
The ginger-haired, blue-eyed Trenet, the "fou chantant" was among the most popular of singers at the time and today has an international reputation as one of the great entertainers of the Twentieth Century. Romance de Paris is one of the few films Trenet starred in, probably his best. He is both convincing and enthralling as the typical working class lad who has a lucky break and who is not corrupted by his success, a latter day fairy tale which, despite its naïve simplicity has genuine warmth. It is interesting to note how close his character in the film resembles the real-life Trenet - both being passionate about music, both respecting the bonds of friendship and family, both shunning needless publicity. To a very good approximation, Charles Trenet and Georges Gauthier are one in the same person.
Although he is clearly the star of the film, Trenet works well with his co-stars particularly Jean Tissier and Sylvie, who play respectively Trenet's friend and mother in the film. The three lead characters have a pleasing rapport, and Tissier's performance is very nearly as entertaining as Trenet's.
Although perhaps overshadowed by the monumental, more sober films which were made at the time, Romance de Paris deserves its place in French cinematic history. With its ceaseless optimism, it served as a cheerful antidote to the penury of everyday life, a distraction from the grotesque business of war. It is no less effective when watched today, a testament to the genius of Jean Boyer and Charles Trenet.