Despite a painful lack of narrative originality, it's peppy charm, game cast, and spectacular bubblegum imagery save the day and make it fun.
Set in late ’50s Paris, Populaire is a loving throwback to the saccharine rom-coms of that decade, dipped in candy coating and wrapped in bright art-deco packaging. It’s scrumptious with every bite, and it’ll make you smile, but it lacks the substance and sustenance of a main course movie. In terms of narrative, this is a straightforward and predictably plotted tale of budding romance between a bullheaded guy and a frisky gal, adding nothing new to the traditional rom-com template. Nothing, that is, except for bestowing upon its heroine the peculiar gift of lightning-fast, immaculately manicured fingers.
Deborah Francois, who bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn (she emanates the same quirky charm as well), plays Rose Pamphyle, a 20-something blond diamond in the rough from a small town in Normandy who auditions for a secretary position (a coveted one in the pre-feminist era) with a dashing, suit-wearing playboy insurance agent named Louis Echard (Romain Duris). Rose wins the position after transcribing an office note on a typewriter with enough speed to blow back Echard’s perfectly parted hairdo, despite using the “double-pointer-finger” technique typically employed by beginner typists and legally blind grandmas.
As it turns out, Rose is a crummy secretary, accidentally shredding important documents and knocking things over on the regular (she’s a fine cutesy klutz), but she’s obviously some sort of typewriter prodigy. Echard gives her a bizarre ultimatum: she must win the local speed typing competition or she loses her job. She must live with him at his mansion and train day and night, minimizing her secretary work to hobby status. With Echard’s relentless, intensive coaching, she learns to type with all ten of her digits and work her way from French provincial competitions to the speed typing world championships in New York City. She becomes somewhat of a speed typing rock star (groupies and all) and an unwitting feminist icon. (The late ’50s was a turning point for the women’s movement and the peak of teen fanaticism like Beatlemania, which makes the setting apt.)
The conceit is clearly contrived, but the sights and sounds of French director Regis Roinsard’s debut feature are so overloaded with charm that you might not be bothered. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, who received praise and an Oscar nod for his stunning work on 2011’s The Artist, dazzles with a dreamy ’50s pastel-painted wonderland that won me over. Roinsard and Schiffman use every trick in the book in their attempt to make the speed typing face-offs look and feel as exciting as possible—they cyclone the camera around the typists, they hang the camera high, they lay it low, they use dolly shots, split screens, close-ups of Francois’ determined eyes and Revlon-ad-worthy hands tapping away furioiusly. Their techniques are loud, overshot, and overblown, but they get the job done—the climactic typefests are the most thrilling sequences in the picture. Other sequences, like a stock montage of Echard training Rose like she’s a professional boxer (what the hell does jogging have to do with typing?) completely miss the mark.
When Echard more or less holds Rose hostage in his swanky chateau, callously bossing her around though he’d never admit to how much he adores her company, the setup and their chemistry recalls Beauty and the Beast, particularly Cocteau’s classic rendition. (“La Belle!!!”) Duris plays a great jerk, though he makes sure to let just enough heart shine through his bad-boy veneer. He sneers when he smiles and smirks when he sneers, exuding attitude all the way. Francois’ soft, classic beauty and natural intelligence jibe well with Duris’ dastardly charm, though they’re never given any dialogue together that comes close to being interesting. Most of their chemistry is cultivated through the way they move around each other, the glances they cast, and the way they touch (lots of hand-flirt close-ups.) There’s a subplot involving Echard’s American best friend, Bob (Shaun Benson) and his gorgeous wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), who happens to be Echard’s ex-lover. Duris and Bejo share a revealing exchange in the latter half of the film that’s the only scene in the film with any emotional depth.
The film owes a lot to Doris Day and Rock Hudson and their classic sugary ’50s comedies. In fact, it might owe everything to them—Roinsard and company don’t do much to build upon the foundation set over half a century ago. Despite a painful lack of narrative originality, Populaire‘s peppy charm, game cast, and spectacular bubblegum imagery save the day and make it fun, at least.
It’s hard not to feel underwhelmed when, in the film’s dramatic crescendo, Echard tells Rose goodbye forever in a cold parking lot and she melodramatically retorts, “Je t’aime!!!” “Je t’aime” is a bit much, Populaire. You look mighty fine, but “love” is a strong word, and sadly, I find I’m only “in like” with you.