Film Review: Populaire

Like biting into a stale cupcake, <i>Populaire </i>is all decoration, no substance.

Anyone tempted by the colorful, confection-like look of the French romantic comedy Populaire should head right for the classic romantic comedy section of their favorite streaming service. Any in the lot will be twice as funny and half as appalling as Populaire. The story of an aspiring secretary who is guided to the speed-typing championships by her charming but unavailable boss is set in the 1950s, and embraces the stereotypical clichés of the era more wholeheartedly than the very films it emulates. The viewer not only has to endure the predictability of seeing a “small-town girl making it in the big city,” “the secretary falling for her boss,” or the fervent belief that “no woman can be complete without love,” they have to watch a film which applauds these stereotypes.

Other throwback adaptations have understood that depicting the values of the era doesn’t mean there should also be a wholesale endorsement of them. “Mad Men” also has typewriters going in the background, but its take could not be more different than Populaire. A more apt comparison may be to the cute Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, which had modern appeal because it featured a ’30s-era Amy Adams hopscotching around social mores. Populaire is embarrassing—its heroine simply cannot succeed on her own, we’re told, unless she’s loved by another. The race to the finish, therefore, is less about the aspiring champion, and more about her coach running to declare his love for her. Only then can she really type fast. Are you running from the theatre yet?

Young Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) wants to get out of her small town. She also doesn’t want to marry the most eligible bachelor in the village, a fact she emphasizes to her father with a one-line yell and pushing some jars off a table, which seems so utterly typical you wonder if the movie is a farce. During an interview to be a secretary, she gets the job by showing off her spectacular hunt-and-peck skills—and unwittingly revealing a bra strap in the commotion. Combined, it’s enough for insurance exec Louis Échard (Romain Duris) to hire her. He takes her on, not as a secretary but to prepare her for the speed-typing championships. He’s tough on her in training, but it appears she’s falling for him. If he feels the same way, he doesn’t show it. His gruffness towards his pupil may have something to do with his lingering love for his childhood neighbor (Bérénice Bejo), who is married to his friend, a former American G.I. (Shaun Benson).

Even if one weren’t bothered by this uncritical time travel to 1958, the movie itself doesn’t have much going for it. The typing competitions, admittedly hard to make cinematic, lack in thrills and suspense. Montages should be a movie’s fun, guilty pleasure. Here, the “training” one is completely boring, and the “Now you’re a star!” one is barely better. The actors here are given fairly one-dimensional characters, and they’re unable to do much more with them. In particular, the romance between Rose and her boss is hard to fathom. During a misunderstanding, she’s presented as his fiancée, and she somehow seems thrilled by the association, despite his poor behavior towards her.

Perhaps The Weinstein Company acquired Populaire in hopes of another The Artist, another France-made romance set in the past that charmed U.S. audiences. The similarities between the movies end there. Populaire attempts to ape ’50s romantic comedies, yet it misses the playfulness and subversive jabs present in the movies of the era. Disappointing in its conventionality and superficiality, this movie only makes you yearn for the period classics that Populaire can’t even approach.