May contain mild spoilers
Populaire is a French romantic drama set in the late 1950s. It’s a simple, predictable but sweet film about a provincial girl setting out to conquer the world. Small town girl Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) has dreams of being a typist and one day travels by bus to her nearest town to apply for a job with a local Insurance Man, Louis Échard (Romain Duris). Her lack of style and understanding of metropolitan life as well as general clumsiness make her stand out from the other applicants, but not in the way she hoped. Demonstrations of her speed typing though, peak the interest of her would be boss and he hires her before deciding to train her for speed typing competitions. With a frisson of sexual excitement and the possibility of proving her father wrong, Rose begins to excel in the unusual sport in which she partakes.
It’s obvious to see from the get go, who the target audience for this film is. Shortly before it began, from our usual seats At the Back, my girlfriend whispered in my ear, “Look at all the shiny heads”. It was true that we were the youngest people in the screening by about thirty years. The film has a simplistic charm and the sort of slow, blossoming romance that will appeal more to the older generation than to those of us with our own teeth and you can tell from the very first scenes exactly where it’s going and what will happen but sometimes it’s nice to get that from a film. Occasionally I don’t mind the odd ‘awww’ moment from a movie but I don’t think Populaire will be popular with all.
To me it felt as though the movie was attempting to cash in slightly on the success of Mad Men. There have been a few TV shows and movies with Man Men-esque style and themes in recent years but this is one of the more overt examples. The men wear sharp suits and drink to excess while the women are attempting to assert a new world order in which they are treated as equals. The heroine spends half of the movie as a feminist, whether she means to or not, but this slides away towards the second half when she becomes a celebrity due to her successes. It felt odd that early scenes were about empowerment and equality but this was just forgotten later on. There were other things which surprised me such as Rose moving in with her handsome boss (albeit in separate rooms). For a small town girl in conservative 1950s France, this felt like an unlikely step. What it allows though is round the clock training and the steady build up of sexual tension.
There was something that slightly spoiled the film for me though it is no fault of the filmmakers. In the UK, before a film we get a title card from the BBFC. This displays the film’s rating, 12A in this case, and briefly outlines why the film got that particular rating. For example before an 18 rated film the frame might read something along the lines of “Strong bloody violence from the start, moderate drug use and scenes of a sexual nature”. It’s something that is relatively new to British cinemas. The problem is though that it occasionally creates spoilers. Here for example, the caption read “Contains one moderate sex scene”. Because of this, I knew before the film started that the couple would get together and that there would be a sex scene. Populaire isn’t the sort of film that will surprise you with its plot but it’s nice not to know what will happen and how many times before you see a movie. The worst example of the BBFC fluffing up a film incidentally was one in which the caption read “Contains one scene of a hanging”, so I spent the whole movie trying to work out which character it would be.
As I said in my opening, Populaire is a sweet film. You could argue that it is occasionally a little too sweet but I was happy to go with it. It’s the perfect date movie for adults who aren’t interested in exploding cars or wise-cracking super heroes. Both leads are good and very watchable but didn’t impress me so much that I feel the need to write at length. Déborah François has an innocence about her but the sort of innocence which you can tell is on the cusp of exploration. She is cute and adorable and to me looked a lot like English actress Gemma Arterton. She portrays the journey to adulthood well and looks both sweet and funny when typing away with her two outstretched fingers. Romain Duris is charming and handsome and I bought his coach/mentor role. To be honest, he didn’t have an awful lot to do but he had great chemistry with François. Bérénice Bejo has a small but important role but like Duris, isn’t given much to do with it. I’d have liked to have seen more of her. Acting wise. OK, everything wise. Mélanie Bernier plays the perfect bitch in her scenes.
The film looks great and has an authentic period feel. It also manages to make the ‘sport’ of speed typing exciting and dramatic. It uses split screen and fancy reverse close ups of the typewriters to get the audience ‘close to the action’ and it ramps up the sound of the keys to aid the tension. It’s a very well choreographed film, from the typing to dancing to sex scene, which is beautifully done. The scene takes place in a darkened room with a flashing light outside. The light switches between red and blue, illuminating the two bodies in frequently changing colour. It looks spectacular. There is also a delightful title sequence which is reminiscent of those made famous in films of the period. The orange, cream, blue and green colour palate looks great and there’s a perfect font and really good animation. The costume design, as I’ve already mentioned, is spot on.
In the end Populaire isn’t going to surprise you. What it lacks in twists and reveals it makes up for in its sweet telling of a traditional romantic story. The leads are fine and the era is visually pleasing but it won’t stay in the memory for long. It somehow makes speed typing exciting and entertaining and balances fun and social commentary well but don’t expect anything groundbreakingly original.