Film Review: Populaire



   Populaire is a delightful, silly, romantic, whimsical slapstick romp. It breezes by as softly and serenely as a light wind on a summer's day, filling the screen with the type of indescribable joy that can usually be found only on those endless evenings where blue skies seem like they will never retreat. It's a film of arched eyebrows, glorious costumes, and an array of quick-witted characters who achieved what I assumed would be impossible - making this writer care about a speed typing competition.

   Regis Ronisard's movie, pitched somewhere between the knowing retro kitsch of Down with Love and the unconventional romance of Secretary but better than either, is a film which looks like it could have fallen through the cracks of cinema history in 1958 just to be re-discovered by a new, appreciative audience. With the bright glow of Technicolor and the zippy zest of a classic "battle of the sexes" old school Hollywood movie, Populaire tells the tale of the narcissistic insurance agent Louis Echard (Romain Duris), who hosts an open interview session to find a new assistant. The mousy Rose Pamphyle (Deborah Francois) seems like she could be the worst choice, she's a clutz, perhaps after the job for the wrong reasons and boasts no discernible skills her fellow interviewees do not share.... until she defiantly begins to tap away at a keyboard to demonstrate her hidden talent. Despite a two finger technique, illustrative of a raw and primitive style, Pamphyle bashes out letter after letter at a furious rate, something which encourages the aloof Echard to hire her instantly. We soon learn that Echard might not be after Pamphyle solely for her secretarial skills; he intends to enter her into a speed-typing competition, he as her trainer, with the aim of making her number one in the world.

   When people think about the best films about sport, they rarely consider that these features aren't actually about the sports themselves, but rather the competitors behind them, their personal achievement and personal growth. What inspires them? What makes them push ahead? With this in mind, and as this film demonstrates, it does not matter how peculiar, or indeed banal, a sporting activity may be as long as the character partaking in it is interesting enough. So, although the marketing may tell you that Populaire is the spiritual brethren of The Artist, it is in many ways closer to Rocky being filtered through the spirit of Bringing Up Baby. And, as far as I'm concerned, there's not much greater than be said about a feature than that.

   Pamphyle begins the tale as an underdog, having to learn all the basics of typing (colour coded keys match her choice of nail varnish) to help her progress past more seasoned opposition. Yet, as she discovers her innate talent, and a hitherto unknown drive and passion to succeed, Pamphyle seems to grow incredibly in both confidence and beauty. It's clear to see, by all, that perhaps Echard will begin to see her as more than a protégé and how can he not? Similarly, its not hard to deduce that Pamphyle might have a slight yearning for her boss who she describes, despite having a tough exterior, as the sweetest man she knows. His response is typical of the guarded salesman - he's not bothered by his secretary's statement as she does not actually know that many people.

   As the film progresses through a series of competitions the tensions begins to rise - Pamphyle and Echard tense up at the prospect of tougher opponents, we are tense watching the pair wondering if they'll ever realise, like we know, that they are madly in love with each other. In between nerve-wracking rounds of quick fire typing, and in-between scenes of even quicker screwball verbal jousting, perhaps the pair won't have time to find out?

   Watching Pamphyle blossom throughout Populaire, filled with discovery of herself and slowly imbibed with an earned confidence, is a true joy. Similarly watching Echard's own journey, from a sweet man who disguises his feelings into one who isn't so aloof, is a similar delight. In this, Duris and Francois represent a great triumph replicating the feel of a Hollywood-era gone by. Yet, in its attempts to replicate the charm and exquisite lightness of touch older generations took for granted, many critics have considered this feature something of a novelty which, in my opinion, is a great shame. There should never be anything novel about a movie this elating; instead it should be a benchmark never to go out of fashion.
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6 comments

  1. I've seen the posters of this film around. It certainly sounds like an interesting storyline, although probably not for everyone. Nevertheless, I will give it a whirl and see how I like it. As always, an amazing review! :-)

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