The whole thing screams chic and is told with such loving care that you can’t help but be won over
Charm, warmth and easy watching – rarely are such films made within the Hollywood machine, it is left to the independents, or foreign markets to produce. And that is where tonight’s feature hails from, France, and it is everything that the opening sentence suggests. Following the story of a naïve shop-working girl with an extraordinary talent for typing, director Régis Roinsard’s debut feature packs in enough comedy, romance, sport, competition and downright charm to win over the hearts and minds of even the most cynical viewers. Nominated for, and winner of, numerous awards it is easy to see why, for the feature plays very much like a film from the period it which it is set: the fifties - from the titles to the music, from the pacing to the acting; the whole thing screams chic and even if the story is inevitably predictable and doesn’t try to tread any new ground, it is told with such loving care that you can’t help but be won over. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight feature presentation is Populaire.
It is spring 1958 and the film opens up to our main protagonist, Rose Pamphyle, as she takes down a typewriter from her widower father’s shop window and begins to type. Her life revolves around a small provincial town of France, her father is over bearing and protective and she seems unable to please him. She is destined to marry the son of the local mechanic and her life seems mapped out for her – but this is not the life she wants, with her skill on the typewriter she dreams of being a secretary in the city. Answering an advert for an insurance company, Rose joins a long line of interviewees for the secretarial job, much to her fathers’ chagrin. The women in front of her all have some experience and natter away to each other giving away valuable tips to Rose, who has never left her home town before let alone been in this situation. Rose is played by Belgian actress Déborah François who is utterly charming in the role. She shows a beautiful youthful innocence as Rose and her striking similarity to a young Audrey Hepburn was not lost on the film-makers (they acknowledge the fact by having a portrait of her in Rose’s bedroom) but since the movie is harking back to an age and a style of '50s film this was not only serendipitous but actively worked into the script. She plays Rose with a youthful exuberance, wilful but sheltered – we’re in the fifties and women still didn’t have many rights, so her standing up to men and arguing her point as well as defending her position and sexuality are traits that shine through. She has the looks and demeanour to melt hearts, and she does so as the film progresses.
Rose’s skill at the typewriter awakens something dormant in him
Louis Échard is the charismatic, well dressed and headstrong owner of the insurance company that placed the advert. The whole line hushes when he walks out of his office to inspect the applicants as the girls, and women, all try their best alluring look to entice him; all, that is, except Rose, whose sheer innocent at this type of behaviour seemingly gives her an advantage. However, her interview goes very badly when her inexperience and clumsiness talks her out of the job. When Louis leaves the office, she plays her trump card – she types a letter. Louis is astounded at her speed even using one finger typing and agrees to give her a week’s trial to see how she copes. Louis is played by Romain Duris whose dour face and mannerisms make him at first a little unlikable - we, like Rose, are untrusting of him and his motives. It is only when we learn a little about his past, he is a war veteran of the Resistance who lost a lot of friends under his command, he is a sports enthusiast but always comes second, he lost his love because he was unable to commit – all these facets are etched into his psyche and his face. Rose’s skill at the typewriter awakens something dormant in him, his competitive edge and it is this more than anything else that which motivates his desire for her – at least at first.
In this digital age where everyone has a computer or laptop and where everyone has some small typing ability it is almost inconceivable that typing at speed was a very desirable skill and there were competitions set for secretaries nationally and internationally for the fastest typing speed. Knowing of these competitions is what motivates Louis to hire Rose, even when her secretarial skills are worse than hopeless and she even fails to qualify in her first competition attempt. Of course, from the moment we have met our two main cast, we know exactly where the film is heading. And this is helped by the enormous on-screen chemistry that François and Duris share. Writer and director Régis Roinsard uses their relationship as a backbone to the story for competing typists, it’s never far away but it’s never in your face, it’s soft, appealing and captivating. Once Rose is on board for the competition the movie changes gear (!) with plenty of montages showing how Rose increases her skill – from coloured nail polish to match the respective keys on the keyboard, to running to increase stamina, piano lessons to increase dexterity and typing out entire books to enhance sentence (de)construction to anticipate letter, and character, formations.
Some might baulk at the idea of its obviousness but the way the narrative is structured keeps you entertained and you are willing the happy ending
It is during this training that our two protagonists inevitably become closer; Rose clearly has a crush on Louis, but he never seems to reciprocate. It is only later that the reasons for his behaviour become clear – and it takes a sudden realisation for him to change his harsh ways. All this is par for the course in typical ‘rom-com’ territory, the ‘will they, won't they’ narrative has been done too many times to count; only here Roinsard manages to keep the mood by shining a light on exactly where the film is headed. Some might baulk at the idea of its obviousness but the way the narrative is structured keeps you entertained and you are willing the happy ending. As Rose’s skill increases so does her popularity both with friends and family. Indeed continued success heals the rift between her and her father in one of many very touching moments that help draw the film along.
The film is set in the late 50s with the writing, direction, cinematography and design being very much in that style of film; right down to the credits and music. In fact if you didn’t know you could swear that this was made in the era that is it set. The style of acting, the character arcs, the pacing, even the story, all give the feeling of nostalgia and the film really thrives on it. There is never any doubt about the outcome of the film; both of the story elements have their required happy endings and this may be a bit too sweet for some; I mean there were times when I expected a slight change from the norm just to make it different (maybe lose the final but get the guy?) however, think about what this film is emulating – before such twists and turns, films were a simpler affair and this is a simple film and, truly, that’s where its greatest appeal is. There is something relaxing about letting a charming little film such as this wash over you. There are genuine moments of comedy, it is captivatingly touching and has that all important feel good factor. It even has boobs in it. What more could you ask for? It has come and gone at the box office without much fanfare, but I do hope that it finds a home on Blu-ray, I think it deserves a great deal of respect.
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