Re:View – ‘Populaire’

The Arts

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In these bombastic times, can you make a movie in which the most exciting moment comes when the keys jam on a typewriter? ‘Populaire’ thinks so, and may be right. Set in 1959, when being a secretary was actually considered an empowering job for a young woman, it follows the rise of Rose, a girl who’s a lousy secretary but an incredibly fast typist. Entered into the world speed-typing championships (yes, there were such things) by her boss, the almost creepily handsome Romain Duris, she may get the crown but will she get the guy?

There’s not much guesswork needed about that, but it’s the getting there that’s fun, with elaborate period stylings, costumes and pastel colours. This is a French co-production in a very retrograde, conservative mood, and no doubt critics will judge it on that – but they should consider whether it works as a rom-com.

Does it? Well, yes and no. There’s little impediment to the coupling beyond Duris’s continued loyalty to the stunning Berenice Bejo, who gave up waiting for him and married his American best friend. Duris is absurdly self-controlled around his protege, and the film could have brought out his own sense of failure as his shy secretary becomes a celebrity, but it’s weak on sexual politics. More problematically, the laughs are pretty thin on the ground, with very few outright jokes in the script, although it doesn’t help that the American subtitle translation is weak (‘Mon choux’ is translated as the mystifying endearment ‘Pumpkin’!)

Yet it’s a very winning film that can get you cheering a typist. All of the traditional sports-film cliches are here; the heartless opponent, the family issue that gets in the way of training, the eleventh-hour intervention, the reconciliation with the coach, and there are event action-typing montages. Plus, the film has buckets of charm, even if it feels it probably should have been a musical – the score is dotted with hilarious typewriter pastiche songs, but surprisingly the one track omitted is ‘The Typewriter Song’, something everyone of a certain age grew up with.

Rose is chased by big business for her endorsements, and the boss’s son is after her because she’ll inspire sales of the Populaire typewriter. But can nostalgic films get big audiences? That’s debatable – the clever Doris Day/ Rock Hudson pastiche ‘Down With Love’ was a disaster, as was ‘Agathe Clery’, which I loved.

I saw the film at BAFTA in a double bill with ‘The Great Gatsby’, and it got more applause than the bigger, louder 3D feature.

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