Fingers to home positions and go…
Quirky small town characters and obsessed competitors, “Mad Men”-era design and the universally loved story of an underdog defying the odds are all combined to make “Populaire”, the new French comedy from writer/director Regis Roinsard, a fun little romp.
When Rose Pamphyle (Deborah Francoise, “L’Enfant”) comes of age, her first act is to leave the sleepy French village and the family grocery behind. She wants the big city, she wants excitement, she wants more. But the only thing she is really good at is pounding away on the tiny typewriter her father keeps in the window of the family general store. She is incredibly fast, but has no training or skill. She talks her way into a job as a secretary at a small insurance firm owned by Louis (Romain Duris) who quickly becomes frustrated by her lack of secretarial skills. But he is amazed by her typing speed and thinks she could win the national Speed Typing Championship, she just needs training. The road to victory is bumpy at first, but Louis decides to quietly move her in to his house so the training can continue beyond work hours. Louis enlists the aid of his friends, Marie (Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”), an ex-girlfriend now married to Bob (Shaun Benson, lots of TV credits), an American who stayed behind after the war, to help Rose become the champion Louis sees in her. Marie is a piano teacher, so Rose begins to learn to play. Bob becomes a one-man cheering squad and provides encouragement to his good friend, Louis.
Every French film these days seems to have Romain Duris in it. He is our generation’s Gerard Depardieu and it is easy to see why he is so popular. While he is good looking, he isn’t matinee idol handsome and this allows him to step into a lot of “everyman”-type roles. But he is also instantly recognizable; as soon as he flashes his crooked grin, I can imagine all of the French girls swooning. As Louis, he fits into the era and its conventions well. He isn’t beyond flirting and carrying on, but he also recognizes he has an image to protect and a business to run. As soon as he decides to help Rose become a Speed Typing Champion, he concentrates all of his energy on reaching this goal. And, per romantic comedy conventions, he fails to notice when he is being too hard on Rose and is oblivious to her growing attraction to him. Will he realize she is in love with him, and he with her, before it is too late?
Rose is so desperate to get out of the sleepy French village where she grew up, she would probably take any job, but she is a fast typist, so… Francois is very good, almost darling, as Rose channeling a little bit of Debbie Reynolds in her heyday. She follows the conventions established by Reynolds or Doris Day and quickly becomes interested in her boss, the attraction growing unnoticed as they work very closely together. As the story is set in the late 50s, she is also very worried about her image and social standing; when Louis suggests she move into a vacant room at his house, she is taken aback and wonders what others will think. In fact, the woman who runs the boarding house where she lives is suspicious and starts to spreads rumors. The fact Francois is able to evoke the spirit of Reynolds or Day is a compliment, not a criticism. If you are going to do a homage, do it well, and Francois does it well.
Throughout, Roinsard seems influenced by a variety of different things – “Mad Men”, underdog films like “The Full Monty”, the romantic comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson and more. As Rose competes, the field is narrowed until she is finally up against the National Champion. Getting to this point involves a lot of montage and it moves the narrative at a fast clip. Later, more montage to evoke the period and how Rose’s life is changed by her new circumstances. My one complaint would be that this film is too American. I go to foreign films to experience and witness a different way of life, a different kind of story. “Populaire” is fun, but it isn’t very challenging. In fact, most foreign films we see in American cinemas are more “American” in style. The companies releasing them want to tap into the American audience and their moviegoing dollars. Challenging films, more “French” films, may have a more difficult time finding a limited audience. Of course, there are many factors involved, but the more “American” a film is, the more chance we have to get a chance to see it.
You will have a fun time watching “Populaire”. And sometimes, that is all that matters.