Movie Review: Populaire
Pros:The lead performances are impeccable, it vividly recreates the era it portrays, it makes some intelligent points about human nature.
Cons:It outstays its welcome by about half an hour, it reverts to a boring Hollywood ending, there is little that's quintessentially French about it.
A French period drama that has some perceptive insights into human nature but disappointingly descends into Hollywood cliche.
European films, and in particular, French films, have a reputation for shunning the more conventional aspects of Hollywood cinema and engaging in overtly experimental approaches. Populaire, however, represents a rare anomaly. Indeed, in many ways, it feels like a less idiosyncratic version of Silver Linings Playbook and countless other films that feature hapless characters who find redemption by embracing a considerable challenge.
This period film adopts the aforementioned format and places it in an especially unusual context. Though setting the movie in the late 50s is not a particularly novel concept, the world of competitive typewriting hardly represents well-travelled cinematic terrain.
Populaire opens with a memorable shot of a bedraggled typewriter with the word ‘TRIUMPH’ clearly visible across it. We learn that it is owned by Rose Pamphyle, a small-town girl with big aspirations. Determined to leave the decidedly unremarkable village in which she grew up, she interviews for a much sought-after job as a secretary at a renowned out-of-town advertising agency, which is run by an authoritative and cantankerous character by the name of Louis Echard.
After being initially rejected for the role, Rose subsequently displays a bloody-mindedness that belies her initially meek countenance, as she begins typing away determinedly despite Louis instructing her to leave the premises promptly. Through this sheer force of will, she persuades the intrigued advertising supremo to hire her on a week-long trial basis. Louis quickly decides that his underling is an inept secretary, but explains to her that she has “a gift”. Consequently, once this temporary stint ends, he agrees to allow Rose to continue in her position on one condition – that she enters the National Typing Championships.
The remainder of the film thus details Rose’ burgeoning success, owing to her unique administration skills, with Louis serving as her mentor in the pursuit of typewriting glory. This increasingly generous individual even provides her with a place to stay in the form of his luxurious household, which the obviously impressed young woman observes is reminiscent to something out of “Gone With the Wind”. The sexual tension between the two is apparent in their numerous flirtations thereafter, and Louis is encouraged by his best friend to embark on a romance. However, he remains reluctant, as he fears any relationship will distract Rose from her typewriting ambitions. Therefore, the film revolves around another archetypal Hollywood trope – the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that invariably permeates screwball comedies, among other genres.
Populaire does a good job in evoking the moments of longing and latent lust that so obviously defines the two main characters’ relationship. The camerawork consummately and concisely illustrates how a simple touching of hands or brushing together of bodies can feel incredibly emotionally shattering when it involves two would-be lovers who are mutually consumed by a passionate intensity. It also helps that the acting is of a high calibre during these scenes. Déborah François plays the role of Rose with an endearing impishness that’s somewhat reminiscent of Audrey Tautou’s performance in Amelie. Though not conventionally good-lucking, her charisma ensures that a simple fluttering of the eyelids will have most male hearts swooning as they watch. Romain Duris, meanwhile, encapsulates the complex mixture of assured and uptight tendencies to which his character is equally prone.
In addition, one particularly memorable scene features Rose deriding Louis’ father for harshly rebuking his son’s life choices, even though she has just met him. Yet surprisingly, instead of castigating her for intruding on what seems a sensitive family matter, the old man is impressed by the young woman’s gall and bravery in confronting him on this issue. The scene thereby highlights that, in some cases at least, honesty is indeed the best policy and by extension, showcases Populaire‘s consistently sharp understanding of human emotions.
Yet for all the convincing chemistry displayed by the leads, the film is less successful in other areas. It falls into that strange territory where it’s not funny enough to be a comedy and not captivating enough to be a drama. It also gives some intriguing insights into 1950s French culture (who knew typewriting was effectively a serious sport back then?). Moreover, it highlights the male-female relationship dynamics, which the 1950s encompassed, specifically in the form of the remarkable innocence intrinsic to the two protagonists’ dialogues. Nevertheless, such curiosities are not enough to sustain this two-hour movie. Indeed, it is seriously weakened by its over-long third act, most of which feels unnecessary and is ridden with the type of Hollywood-at-its-worst cliches that undermine the frequently intelligent relationship commentaries that precede this disappointing climax.
Populaire incidentally happens to be Régis Roinsard’s feature debut, but unfortunately, he’s only succeeded in making half a good film, and one which seems a little bit too enamoured with Hollywood’s more unsavoury excesses for its own good.