A French bonbon of little consequence but lots of style, Populaire - a midcentury-modern lark about a secretary, her typewriter, and her demanding boss - occupies some fantasy realm where colors are more vivid than in real life, the clothes snazzier, the characters more carefree. Even when there's tragedy around the turn, it doesn't matter. Populaire plays like a musical - you expect anyone, at any time, to break into song.
With shades of Mad Men (cocktails, cigarettes, sexism) and Amélie (an impossibly cute and wacky heroine), Populaire is the story of Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), a shy, bumbling country girl whose father runs a general store - a general store with a blue Triumph manual typewriter in its front window. Rose sneaks down in the middle of the night and starts tapping away. The keys, the ribbon, the crisp letters on the page - bliss!
And then the young woman goes to the big city to apply for a secretarial job. The room is filled with candidates, and while Rose may be the most beautiful, she's certainly not the most skilled. The boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris, debonairness is his default mode), isn't about to hire her - until Rose boldly rolls a sheet of paper into the office typewriter. Her self-taught, two-finger technique may be unorthodox, but she's a demon - so swift and steady, in fact, that Louis feels compelled to hire her. Which he does, entering her in a speed-typing competition, and another, coaching her like Spencer Tracy putting Katharine Hepburn through her rigorous training regimen in Pat and Mike.
With its clickety-clacking rhythms, jaunty jazz and lounge music, late-'50s fashions, cool cars, and eye-popping reds and blues, Populaire celebrates that 20th-century moment when the war seemed long gone, commerce was thrumming, and the women's movement hadn't quite yet begun. Régis Roinsard, the first-time director (he comes from music videos, commercials), clearly has a thing for the Rock Hudson/Doris Day Hollywood era, and he has found a charming leading lady in François. She can play wifty, she can play hapless, and she can take your breath away.
Tap tap. Return. Ding.
Populaire *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Régis Roinsard. With Déborah François, Romain Duris, and Bérénice Bejo. In French with subtitles. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse