French writer/director Régis Roinsard makes his feature length debut with Populaire, the story of a young girl searching for her identity and purpose in the world during the late 1950s, and the man who pushes her toward stardom. Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is a naïve girl living in Normandy, the town where she grew up. Raised by her widower father, a stubborn and conservative man set in his ways, Rose looks to start a new life in Paris. Her rapid typing skills – using only two fingers no less – land her a job with Louis Échard (Romain Duris), a handsome but smug insurance agent.
It’s her quick hands that win him over, but Louis has bigger plans for Rose beyond being his office secretary. He wants to make her a champion. The latest trend of the day is competitive female speed typing and he’s sure she has what it takes to win the gold. Appointing himself her coach and taking her under his roof to train her, Louis works a transformation on the clumsy, self-doubting Rose. A transformation so grand that when he is through another character describes her life as, “the modern girls dream.” Though Rose isn’t too sure at first. Rose’s story is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn‘s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (and Rose’s character is every bit as spicy) with Louis serving as her Henry Higgins. A similar flirtatious but complicated relationship also ensues between Rose and Louis.
Beyond the premise, the entire film plays homage to Hollywood films of the 1950s and their iconic characters, while incorporating techniques used in films from pioneering directors of the French Nouveau like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, evoking a feeling of nostalgia for the time period and it’s artistic movements. A certain love scene between Rose and Louis employs characteristics overtly borrowed from Hitchcock and in particular, Vertigo, through use of bright flashing lights in alternating colors that amplify their faces in the otherwise pitch dark room. Some of the music from Hitchcock’s masterpiece also makes an appearance.
Similar to the way The Artist serves as tribute to the era of silent films in America, Roinsard’s Populaire is a commendation of the Technicolor classics of the 1950s, and to the actresses like Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe who symbolize the era. The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo also stars in the film as Marie – Louis’s ex-girlfriend now married to his best friend – who portrays an alternate perspective to the modern woman of the time, a well-intentioned but unsatisfied housewife.
There are hints of the impending women’s liberation throughout the film, and to the changing roles of women that surfaced during post-world war two both in American and Europe. At one point Marie even asks Rose her opinion of the ideal man, to which she answers without hesitation, “one who sees me as an equal.” Rose herself embodies the ideal version of the modern woman, refusing to be forced into becoming what society, or her father, deems appropriate. That being said, these ideas are sometimes acknowledged in a way that feels like the film is trying too hard. When Rose declares that she is “too weird to love,” for example, the audience gathers that this is how she feels without her having to state it to them outright.
Though Roinsard and his co-writers deserve props for centering the story around a strong female character, the narrative only explores it’s feminist themes on a surface level, and Louis’s shortcomings hardly make for a prize partner for Rose. In fact, some women may even go as far as to wonder why she would want him. Arguably this is due to the period films Populaire desires to recreate, and those familiar with them will likely have an easier time accepting some of the unlikeable personality traits conveyed because of this.
While the romantic angle may fall a bit short, the best scenes are those of the typing competitions themselves. It’s both nerve-racking and hysterical to watch these women prepare to compete, hands hovering above their typewriters like cat claws ready to pounce as they anxiously wait for the whistle to blow. The absurdist and satirical quality of these sequences of the film are the narratives strong point, though with the inclusion of regional, national and world championships it probably wouldn’t have hurt to shorten some of them in some places, as the film begins to feel long as it nears the end.
For cinema buffs, Populaire will prove an entertaining and enjoyable experience, recalling scenes from cinema’s past and the nostalgia conjured – and these elements are definitely noteworthy – but the predictable plot and formulaic script keep it from reaching it’s maximum potential. Shortcomings aside, it is a fun film and definitely worth a peripheral view.