As a twenty-one year old woman living in a provincial town in 1950s Paris, Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) seems destined to pass from the control of one man to another now that her father has arranged her engagement to a local mechanic. However, when Rose travels to Lisieux in Normandy an opportunity presents itself when she starts work as a secretary for charismatic insurance salesman Louis Echard (Romain Duris). Despite a disastrous interview, Louis is impressed with Rose’s astonishing speed typing skills. Acting as her coach, he enters Rose in a regional typing contest that sparks a series of events altering both there lives along with a chance for romance.
Recently French critics have despaired at the retro trend in their national cinema, accusing some filmmakers of ignoring contemporary social issues to seek refuge in fanciful, idealised visions of the past. Although Michel Hazanavicius appears to have been the chief target, what with his spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and Oscar-winning silent masterpiece The Artist (2011) (evidently, nothing aggrieves more than success), newcomer Régis Roinsard drew some flak with Populaire which nonetheless, in keeping with its name (actually derived from a brand of typewriter that plays a prominent role in the plot) proved considerably popular with French filmgoers.
On these shores, Roinsard’s debut was strangely compared with Mad Men, possibly because Romain Duris’ dapper turn parallels Jon Hamm’s sterling work as dapper Don Draper but still odd given the television show takes place in the Sixties and, for all its outstanding qualities, is faintly depressing whereas Populaire unfolds in the previous decade and is decidedly upbeat. A better comparison might be made with the similarly retro rom-com Down with Love (2003) although the tone here is nowhere as ironic and belies its fanciful surface with ambitious layers of social commentary and psychological depth. We discover Louis bears some psychological scars from serving with the resistance during the war and slightly resents his American best friend Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson) for marrying his childhood sweetheart Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and it is implied, eclipsing French social virility with his continuing business success. This subtext comes into play during the rousing finale which answers the question of French relevance in an American-dominated world in delightfully poetic fashion.
The spirits of Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy hover gossamer-like over the art direction and cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman which sparkles pristine in glorious mock Technicolor. But rather than a musical Populaire springs a fresh twist on the sports drama with Louis as the coach and Rose the prodigiously gifted natural athlete, er, typist. The plot follows the expected sports film trajectory from tragedy to triumph complete with rigorous training regime and cathartic feel-good finale, though naturally there is much more at stake here than a simple typing contest. Roinsard posits the typewriter as a force for female liberation in the Fifties, the means by which women were able to earn a wage and shake off social constraints. He uses the typing contest itself as a device to strip away the façade from both hero and heroine, revealing his gallantry and her pluck till they inevitably fall in love. As Rose gains confidence and blossoms as a woman without compromising her integrity or aspirations Roinsard adopts an old familiar movie trick by having François grow increasingly stunning as the film goes along. A huge aspect of the film’s success stems from the phenomenally charismatic pairing of Duris with the delightful François with the latter emerging as gutsy and forthright without looking like an anachronism, which is a tricky thing to do in these films. There is an element of Pygmalion about the plot as Louis grows intimated by his emancipated “creation” till he realises he needs Rose more than she ever needed him. Happily, Roinsard throws in enough plot quirks and poetic allusions to make a familiar story sparkle anew while his whirling camera work and rapid-fire editing invest astonishing energy into the high speed typing contests.