Review: Populaire

Rose (Déborah François) learns many fingers make light work
Rose (Déborah François) learns many fingers make light work

Below is a list of words that appeared when feeding the word ‘charm’ into an online thesaurus in preparation for this review:

Allure, agreeableness, appeal, attraction, attractiveness, beauty, beguile, bewitchery, captivate, charisma, chemistry, delightfulness, desirability, enchantment, enrapture, ensorcell, glamour, grace, inveigle, magic, magnetism, please, sorcery, star quality, and tickle pink.

I don’t usually use such websites as a rule, but I thought I’d gather a good resource of synonyms and tasty adjectives to use as fodder in this instance. I’ve set myself a target of x number of words to write about Populaire, after all. I’ve got a wide vocabulary, but sometimes a guy needs a little help. I can’t just keep calling it charming, can I? Even though it was. Utterly, utterly charming.

Beginning in 1958, Populaire tells the story of Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), small town girl looking to branch out of her reductive choices. Rose goes for a secretarial position at a small insurance firm, working for a well-groomed man named Luis Échard (Romain Duris). Though she can type quickly, she can do so solely with her index fingers, hammering at the keys feverishly. Échard is ensorcelled*, as much by Rose’s unique approach to typing as by her captivating looks. He hires her with an eye not just to have her be his secretary, but to also coach her through typing competitions. He wants her to be the best. First in France, then the world!

Thus begins a story which follows, to the letter, the exact trajectories of two trustworthy genres; the romance and the sports-competition movie. Speed typing might set Populaire apart from the pack in terms of novelty value, but the course is as inevitable as a Rocky or even a Step Up film. Yes, there’s going to be a training montage. Yes, there’ll be a crisis of faith. Yes, there’ll be an eleventh-hour setback to make that photo-finish victory all-the-more suspenseful.

Likewise, in romantic terms, of course there’ll be that first flush of bewitchment, of course the chaste courtship, of course the crowd-pleasing moment when they both give in to one another, of course something will drive a wedge between them, and of course they’ll reunite at the end.

That Populaire blatantly gives in to such cliché is one thing. That it succeeds because of them is quite another. Because this film so thoroughly embraces such well-worn roads it becomes a celebration of them. Populaire feels like a delightful fairy tale. One that’s been told many times before, but the point is not the story, it’s the telling. And this film does it very well indeed.

Directed by Régis Roinsard, Populaire is a gift for the eyes. Evoking the period with a confectionery sheen, Roinsard populates his film with exceptionally attractive people wearing immaculately tailored costumes, inhabiting expertly designed locations. The attention to detail is so fine, so exquisite as to make the film feel like a walking talking waxwork museum. Everything exudes glamour and style. And it’s all so very, very French.

This celebratory playfulness and homage to a specific sensibility has drawn comparisons to both The Artist and, aesthetically, to TV’s Mad Men. Both are understandable, but really the influences here are legion. With Échard needing Rose to complete him as much as Rose needs Échard, you could equally draw comparisons to Steven Shainberg’s Secretary from a decade ago. Though the trappings of the two films are far apart, they’re not so dissimilar. Both portray genuinely touching relationships in which codependency is a driving force. Rose and Échard improve each other. They are better together than apart. The audience knows it before the characters do. Their naivety is as endearing as everything else here.

Events unfurl at a good pace (though there is a little lag before the big finale). The script is genuinely funny on several occasions, and both François and Duris fit their roles as perfectly as they do their costumes. Their eventual coupling is tactile and sensual, lit effectively by a neon sign casting their lovemaking in alternating deep blue and passionate red. Yet more eye-candy in a film resplendent with such moments. When Rose gets down to business from heats through to grand finals, Roinsard’s camera whirls around the competing typists with stylish flair, or mirrors them with split-screen. The tricks are old ones, but they work – it’s easy to get sucked in.

Quite simply, Populaire is as much of a joy as you let it be. There are going to be more original and daring films this year, but for sheer candyfloss entertainment value, there may be few films as simply enjoyable as this one. Roinsard’s film is here to make you happy. It has no greater achievement in mind beyond that. But what exactly is wrong with giving in to such a thing? Decadent and genuinely quite lovely, Populaire is crowd pleasing cinema at its best, unafraid to give the audience exactly what it wants in exactly the order it expects it. It’s snazzy, sexy, sentimental when it needs to be, not to mention a great many if not all of the adjectives and synonyms listed above courtesy of the briefest of google searches. Was I tickled pink? Yes I was.

Thoroughly… what’s the word?

Charming.

Score:  4

*I do love that word, yet so rarely remember to use it.

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