Populaire review

A flighty French romcom set in the late 1950s, Populaire wants to be equal parts Amélie and Mad Men, but its lack of laughs and savvy ultimately make it only a passing tribute to those entertainment titans.

Rose Pamphyle (François) is a 21-year-old small-town girl who auditions to be dreamy Louis Échard’s new secretary at his insurance firm, only to demonstrate her real talent as a typist. Louis (Duris) gives her the job on the condition she enters a regional speed-testing competition, with him as her coach. Naturally, she accepts, and the plot spirals from there as we follow her quest to be champion.

From its opening title credits and early scenes, complete with pop art, jaunty jazz, and swooning secretaries, it’s clear the filmmakers aspire to a light period piece. But there’s a lack of good lines or comedic insight, and the trivial tone does not make Populaire’s treatment of gender any less problematic. Mad Men always has something to say when depicting rampant inequality, but it’s unclear what, if anything, the message is here.

Rose is no shrinking violet, but she progresses from being insulted by Louis’ supposed advances to craving them as swiftly as she improves her typing. While the duo have chemistry – and the inevitable sex scene is artfully done, lit by constantly changing red and blue hues from exterior neon lights – there’s a slightly leering quality to the general camerawork, with the latent suggestion that typing is a kind of sexual act for women. Much more explicit, however, are the abundant clichés of the relationship. Expect the obligatory sass/slap/kiss combo, with an excruciating “let’s pretend we’re engaged for the parents” episode for good measure.

Their professional relationship, meanwhile, makes no sense, with Rose being a spectacularly useless secretary and it never being adequately explained why Louis was determined to train her. There is some suggestion it lies in misplaced war guilt – Louis led a French resistance group in the 40s – but this and other plot threads, such as his love for his best friend’s wife, are never satisfyingly resolved, with the majority of screen time taken up by typing.

These contests are given the full Rocky treatment, right down to montages featuring coach Louis on a bike as Rose runs along behind, but director Régis Roinsard never embraces the full absurdity of his subject for laughs. He gives the competitions his directorial all: quick cuts, 360 degree pans, and the delightful rhythmic ping of the typewriter as the carriage return is hit. But there’s only so much you can do to eke tension out of typing (however quick) and the narrative arc is such that there’s little suspense about the outcome. Regardless, you brace yourself for the finale in Paris, only to realise there’s a half hour and the World Championships in New York still to come. For a film about contests won by brevity, it takes far too long to make its case.

Populaire at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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