Populaire, from first time French director Régis Roinsard, is that rare modern romantic comedy – one that seeks to emulate the oneliner-rich battle-of-the-sexes comedies of the ’50s and ’60s, such as the ones that starred Doris Day and Rock Hudson (Pillowtalk, Send Me No Flowers) … and succeeds.
That is thanks largely to Romain Duris as emotionally aloof insurance executive Louis Échard, and Déborah François as Rose Pamphyle, the small town Normandy woman who dreams of life as that most modern of 1950s woman, a secretary, who together seem to be channelling the cinematic spirits of the two darling of mid-20th century romantic comedy movies.
The screenplay too by Régis Roinsard, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt is brimming with the sort light and fluffy, yet full of great import moments that fuel these classics of the genre, a clever retort here, a knowing wink there, all of which add up to a clever, taut nostalgic retro nod to a bygone era.
In this case 1950s France when women, still largely considered to best suited to the domestic front, began asserting the independence dangled in front of them during World War Two, and sought a life outside the home in ever increasing numbers.
In the case of Rose Pamphyle, it is a move not simply beyond the corner shop, Bazar Pamphyle, owned by Rose’s father Jean (Frédéric Pierrot) where she has lived and worked all her life but to the relatively bustling town of Lisieux a creaky old bus away, where she is sure a whole new exciting life awaits her.
While her skills for the job are suspect at best, and rely more on wishful thinking and ambition than actual ability, Louis soon notices that Rose can type fast, very, VERY fast.
And so despite her secretarial skills being poor to non-existent – she write messages reminding him to call back customers on his hand, which washes away with the sweat of that afternoon’s tennis match, and accidentally shreds an important assessment for another customer – Louis not only keeps her employed but asks her to come live with him, so they have all the time in the world to train.
Train for what you may ask in a world where typewriters, a recent resurgence aside, have largely followed the Dodo and the sweet innocence that underpins this film, into extinction?
Why for a series of speed-typing competitions, which apparently were all the rage back in the ’50s and ’60s, eagerly entered into by legions of ambitious young women and upon which typewriter companies such as Japy, the French company for which Rose eventually becomes the poster girl, placed great importance.
Louis, constantly heckled by his father Georges (Eddy Mitchell) for not growing the insurance he has left him beyond the confines of Lisieux, dreams of striking it big in the competitive world of speed typing, with plans to take Rose from Normandy to Paris for the national championships and then on to the world championships.
It’s heady stuff and Louis trains his often reluctant protege with one-eyed zeal, all the while missing the fact (naturally for this is a classic romantic comedy) that Rose has fallen for him.
But it’s not simply his ambition that him blinded.
There are also lingering feelings for childhood love, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who chose, years earlier, to leave the arms of commitment-shy Louis for the more welcoming arms of ex-US army soldier Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson) who rather awkwardly is Louis’s best friend.
Populaire is thus primed for all manner of comical missteps, misunderstandings and the inevitable parting of the ways that culminates, rather late in the piece, in New York when Louis finally admits how he feels.
It is all gleefully formulaic on one level, but delivered with such chutzpah and comedic joy, not to mention candy-coloured retro visuals worthy of any of the classic courtesy of cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, that you cannot help but be swept along by this tale of two people always meant to be together, if only they can realise the all too obvious fact.
That it reaches the expected finishing point of love true love won’t surprise anyone with even a passing interest in the genre but that it does so by juggling an amalgam of beautifully realised classic romantic comedy sensibilities, overtones of any and all sports movies where the underdog battles the champions for success, and a nostalgic nod to a bygone era is truly impressive and a real delight worthy of all the genre classics that have come before it.
- Viewed Saturday 18 January 2014.