This is the film that I have enjoyed most in the cinema this year. I found it compelling entertainment for two reasons. One was the casting of Romain Duris and Déborah François and the other was the use of costume, colour, lighting, graphics and music. Duris and François are my favourite francophone actors of the current crop and that might explain why I am so taken with a film which too many critics seem to have dismissed as simply ‘conventional’. Philip French has announced his retirement from the Observer but in one of his last published reviews he gave the film the full works and found many interesting connections – whereas his colleague on the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, dismissed it with hardly a second glance. That’s a big mistake because there is plenty to see.
Budgeted at a whopping €14.7 million, Populaire has been inevitably linked with The Artist and Mad Men because of its meticulously presented period detail. It shares The Artist‘s female star Bérénice Bejo (in a small but important role) and its cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and it’s set in 1958-9 with the same attention to period offered by Mad Men. But that’s where the connection to the TV series ends – and the lazy hype perpetrated by distributors has arguably damaged the film’s box office. Think instead an hommage to the American sex comedies of the 1950s with Duris as Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon and François as an amalgam of all those greats such as Doris Day and before her Judy Holliday – but also decidedly Déborah François. This feeling of borrowing from Hollywood is underlined by the clever use of colours and lighting – like the bright colours of early Technicolor. The music is also well chosen with a mix of French and Anglo-American popular styles. There is a real sense of that keen French interest in American modernity associated with the need for speed – the typing competition is an excellent vehicle for this. Populaire is the first feature by director Régis Roinsard who had the original idea and co-wrote the script. It has its flaws and weaknesses but overall it works extremely well. Of course, a romcom/social comedy set in the 1950s raises questions about gender and we’ll come to those later. First though a brief outline.
Rose is a young woman bored by live in her Normandy village where her father owns the village store. When insurance agent Louis advertises for a secretary in a nearby town she applies for the post and gets it – because she is pretty and Louis is a letch, we assume. In fact she is hopeless as a secretary but she can type like a whirlwind. Louis keeps her on and begins to train her for the typing speed contests which were apparently all the rage in the late 1950s. From then on the narrative structure is highly conventional with Rose going on to contest the ‘World Championship’ in New York. Along the way there are a couple of innovations and some tricky decisions over what to show/hint at in terms of offering what might be seen as nostalgia to a contemporary audience. (The ‘Populaire’ is a model of typewriter manufactured by the Japy company of Paris who become Rose’s sponsors when she wins the national title.)
The romcom demands that Louis at first doesn’t recognise his own desire for Rose, allowing him to be quite determined and distanced in his ‘use’ of her typing skills to achieve the success as a trainer that eluded him as an athlete himself. He is that familiar figure, the man in his late thirties running the family business but feeling that he has not succeeded. Rose loves him from the start but is too proud to show it, going along with his madcap training schemes to please him. The narrative material that Roinsard attempts to work with here includes a backstory that involves Louis as member of the Résistance in the latter stages of the war – which in turn led to his separation from his childhood sweetheart (Bejo), now married to an American who parachuted onto her parents’ farm in June 1944. For me, none of this worked, partly I think because despite his many talents I just couldn’t see Duris in the Résistance – but perhaps the fault is mine, there is no reason why a man looking good in a sharp suit in 1958 shouldn’t have a wartime past. But the back story does lead into some potentially darker sides to the drama. Allied to this the sudden appearance of Louis’ family at Christmas provides one of the highlights of the film.
In the end, the film stands or falls for me on the performance of Ms François and she is formidable. She has the ability to move convincingly from village shop assistant to flirtatious romcom heroine, from childlike student to steely contestant and from clumsy office worker to assertive and confident young woman. In all of these roles she is convincing and she dominates the screen. The criticisms of the film’s ‘sexist’ and ‘gendered’ view claims that the film is conservative and backward looking and this is linked by some commentators to the inclusion of one sex scene and one ‘gratuitous’ ‘wet blouse’ moment – see the image at the head of the post. In the UK the film was given a 12A certificate which seems about right – but in the US it seems to be heading for ‘Restricted’. The sex certainly is an issue for a film which I’ve suggested is attempting to work like those 1950s Hollywood comedies with their Hays Code approved scripts. A similar problem comes up when characters appear to be speaking ‘out of time’ – e.g. with references to smoking and when Rose cries “but this is 1959” (and therefore she can be a ‘liberated’ young woman). I think, on balance Populaire gets these decisions right. I also think that, like Doris Day and Judy Holliday before her, Déborah François is capable of taking the script away from its ideological implications of a submissive and restricted female underclass. Rose is a strong woman who works hard to get what she wants, standing up to whoever gets in her way. The narrative does validate the skills of the typist and it underlines the fact that secretarial work was one of the ways by which women were able to become independent and to establish themselves in the office before moving into a wider range of white collar jobs. The film has suffered because of some of the negative reviews. I hope more audiences are able to see it and enjoy it for what it is – a conventional romcom with great performances that recalls some of the under-rated popular films of the 1950s. It has already created a buzz among the collectors of antique typewriters!
And if you do enjoy this, can I recommend Déborah François in the generically very different La tourneuse de pages (The Pageturner) which nonetheless has some narrative similarities?