On the bus home from the cinema earlier this evening, I shared this little nugget on Facebook:
“Populaire: enjoyably cheesy feel good typewriter porn. And that’s not a sentence I envisaged writing when I got up this morning!”
The above functions as a reasonable enough capsule review. Here’s the more considered version:
Populaire is the kind of film that, if I got made in Hollywood – okay, so a Hollywood studio greenlighting a romcom set in the high-stakes world of typing competitions is a tad unlikely, but bear with me here – would star Katherine Heigl as the ditzy but gorgeous typist and Gerard Butler as the smarmy failed-athlete-turned-businessman who sees her as a ticket to exonerating his lack of competitive edge way back when. There would be training montages, awkward banter that pirouettes gradually into the suggestive, and an all-or-nothing finale on the eve of the world championship competition. All of which, to be fair, can be found in the non-Hollywood Populaire that exists here in the real world, directed by Regis Roinsard and starring Deborah Francois and Romain Duris. The difference is that Hollywood would meld this material into a tame romantic comedy with no real stakes and the typing just a quirky backdrop to the boy-meets-girl predictability.
Populaire takes its typing seriously. The various tournaments Rose (Francois) competes in are depicted either as endurance tests (one in particular comes across as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with typewriters instead of dancing) or outright duels. At one point, Roinsard whips the camera back and forth between the blurred fingers of two finalists, the motion suggesting a tennis match.
Nor are the romcom elements necessarily tame, no matter how much the swirling, pastel-coloured stylisations of the first half might conspire to kid you otherwise. The sexual tension between Rose and the sullen, driven Louis (Duris) resolves in what the BBFC guidance text calls “one moderate sex scene”, as a prelude to which the protagonists have a toe-to-toe argument and treat each other to a good hard slap before they get en sac.
This is a good place to consider Populaire’s unreconstructed worldview, and to make a tip of the hat to Roinsard for utterly nailing the aesthetic. The film is set in 1959 – it has to be, given the subject matter and the development in typewriter technology that it pays off with – and it both looks and feels like it. There’s a casual sexism that was pretty much the norm in cinema (and literature … and, hell, in society itself) in the 50s and 60s. It’s there in the parade of wannabe secretaries vying for a job with Louis. It’s there in the man-hungry vamp who practically throws herself at a coolly unresponsive Louis in a bar. It’s there in the sneering, leering mambo singer who practically oozes his performance at a smoky club.
Fortunately, all of this is balanced by the sheer irresistibility of Francois’s performance. (The most likeable heroine French cinema has given us since Amelie Poulain? I’m calling it!) It’s balanced by a cluster of hilarious moments, from an impromptu dance sequence to Rose’s colour coded nail varnish, an aid to touch typing.
Narratively, Populaire offers no surprises. It reminded me of Papadopoulos and Sons in its use of tried-and-trusted plot points: with the story taking care of itself, the script is free to investigate the oddball psychological struggle between Louis’s need to compete and his fear of fulfilment, as well as the familial underpinnings to Rose’s inveterate clumsiness and lack of confidence. The baby boom materialism of the late 50s – highlighted by the presence of expatriate American Bob (Shaun Benson) as Louis’s rival-cum-friend – makes for an effective counterpoint to the human story.
Populaire isn’t perfect – Louis’s recollections of his wartime past as a member of the Resistance freight the script with something entirely at odds with everything else in the film, and there’s some cringeworthy national stereotyping going on in the world championship sequence – but it makes for an entirely entertaining and just-quirky-enough two hours at the cinema, its ostensible superficialities masking a well-crafted grown-up piece of filmmaking. An excellent choice for the discerning populist.