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“Populaire,” a French import directed by Régis Roinsard, opens on a shot of a Triumph brand typewriter. It’s a prophetic visual: triumph is what’s in store for the film’s protagonist, and this typewriter is how she will get there. Set in 1958, this romantic comedy charts the transformation of Rose Pamphyle from naïve secretary to speed-typist extraordinaire, as well as her relationship with her boss and coach, Louis Échard. But there is more going on here than the relatively straightforward plot might suggest. Roinsard laces “Populaire” with serious themes that enable it to transcend its frothy exterior and makes it the rare film capable of leaving one both giggly and pensive.
The success of “Populaire” as a romantic comedy pivots, predictably, on the performances of its leads. Romain Duris and Déborah François are excellent as Échard and Pamphyle. Duris endows Louis with a quietly insecure, finicky physicality that prevents the character being steamrollered by the knight in shining armor archetype. François succeeds in her role by emphasizing Pamphyle’s flaws. She gives the impression that her character’s typing ability is more a fluke than a talent while emphasizing the character’s ignorance and ineptitude. Duris and François also excel as a pair. The chemistry between Échard and his protégé is redolent of “Pygmalion,” but not tritely so—imagine Henry and Eliza, with half the propriety and twice the innuendo.
Currents of obsoleteness and ephemerality run through “Populaire” like strips of gray hair in an otherwise blonde and perfectly coiffed bouffant. The film bristles with staples of the mid-20th-century: big-skirted dresses, snappy suits, idyllic two-child families, rooms filled with female job applicants who dream of marrying the man who hires them. But while Roinsard romanticizes these mores, he never lets his audience forget the quaint world it is ogling comes with an expiration date. When Pamphyle asks Échard to stop smoking at work, he retorts, “Only a law could stop me, pumpkin.” Further, the elements of the zeitgeist plumbed most thoroughly (the secretary as a figure of glamor, the sort of workplace romance that gets modern-day businessmen fired) are artfully overdone, such that their biggest impression is their impossibility today.
The impermanence of the culture on display in “Populaire” is underscored by that of Pamphyle’s success. In a post-penmanship world, typing has lost its novelty. The audience doesn’t witness Rose’s descent, but can hardly fail to realize what the future has in store for her. The presumably brief tenure of Pamphyle’s celebrity is alluded to in a well-edited sequence in which a magician makes an actual rose (already fleeting) vanish into thin air.
Roinsard also explores the idea of the typewriter as an outlet and gateway to independence for mid-century women. Prior to the start of each speed-typing competition, an umpire-equivalent directs the typists to position their hands above “les claviers.” The word in this context refers to their typewriters, but can also mean piano. The double entendre is appropriate: her typewriter is the instrument through which timid, klutzy Pamphyle expresses herself. And the ability to type is what has enabled all of the women competing to support themselves, sans un homme.
Rom-com underpinnings might have bogged down “Populaire,” but the film does a good job of not taking itself too seriously. Roinsard doesn’t expect the viewer to accept the gravitas “Populaire” heaps on speed-typing. He pokes fun at the less than earth-shattering nature of Rose’s ascent in a montage sequence, where she is seen running, Rocky style, through the pastoral rues of Lisieux, France. The comedic analogy continues when Rose enters the ring, competing in speed-typing competitions that grow progressively more prestigious. Roinsard presents these contests with as much pomp and circumstance as NBC does the Olympics. At the regional contest in Normandy, one eager participant affixes her machine to the table by means of a metal apparatus with adjustable screws.
“Populaire” is not perfect. Roinsard seamlessly marries light comedy with thoughtful motifs, but stumbles when he tries to bring heated romance to the party. The two-minute scene that earns “Populaire” its R rating is not poorly executed, but comes absurdly out of nowhere. Bookended by successions of solid G-rated content, it is too much of an outlier to come across as anything but awkward. Roinsard also seems to lose control of his film in its final act. With 20 minutes to spare, the rom-com takes over, a coup that culminates in the insufferable one-liner “America for business, France for love.”
A groaner of this magnitude is bound to leave audiences with a bad taste in their mouths. But on the whole, corn does not epitomize “Populaire.” A more fitting alimentary analog is superior cotton candy: fluffy and saccharine, yet substantial enough to stick to your ribs. Bien fait, Monsieur Roinsard!
—Staff writer Emma R. Adler can be reached at email@example.com.
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