What’s French for “Gal Friday”?
The story of a plucky secretary from the Normandy countryside who overcomes her office ineptitude to compete in the world speed-typing championship — in the process melting the cold, cold heart of her chauvinistic boss and typing coach — “Populaire” is a mostly delightful and entirely unironic throwback to the kind of film they stopped making about 50 years ago. From the jauntily animated opening title sequence (designed by Alexandre Courtes) to the requisite double-slap-kiss scene — she slaps him, he slaps her, they smooch like leeches — the film evokes the classic rom-coms of the 1950s.
It’s a love letter to Doris Day and Rock Hudson, typed on a manual typewriter, with accent marks, and cc’ing Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”).
Deborah Francois plays Rose, a young woman with no marketable secretarial skills other than her swiftness on a keyboard: self-taught, and with two fingers, no less. When she applies for a position in the office of dashingly single insurance agent Louis Echard (Romain Duris), she’s just about to be passed over, until Louis notices her gift. This being 1958, it doesn’t hurt that she’s as cute as a blond, Audrey Hepburn-shaped button.
But that’s not the main attraction for Louis, a seemingly confirmed bachelor who’s nursing some mysterious romantic injury that prevents him from turning this obvious setup, and Rose’s obvious crush on him, into the world’s shortest movie. Louis, an inveterate sportsman, sees potential in adopting Rose as his prize filly in the Sport of Kings — er, insurance salesmen: the local speed-typing contest.
If she can translate to 10 fingers what she accomplishes with two, Rose should clean up.
On one superficial level, it’s like “My Fair Lady,” with Louis as Henry Higgins and Rose as Eliza Doolittle. On another, she’s the one schooling him. There’s a subtle subtext of female empowerment — Rose wants to be treated as an equal partner, not chattel — that lends the film a gloss of postmodernity. It’s reinforced by Duris, whose Louis — though he keeps calling Rose “Pumpkin,” condescendingly — is really more of a sensitive metrosexual than comparable heroes of the period. Not only does he have the soft, slightly androgynous features of a boy, but he can cook, too.
Then there’s the little matter of premarital sex. Though Rose and Louis just can’t seem to commit, they do briefly hook up, in the parlance of today’s kids. You’d never see that in a 1950s movie, without serious consequences.
But that contemporary gloss is just a gloss. “Populaire,” which takes its name from the brand of typewriter Rose competes with as she moves higher and higher in the world rankings, is not a movie that puts the 1950s in air quotes. Director Regis Roinsard, who wrote his feature debut with Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt, is unabashedly in love with cheesy, cornball sentiment, which he dusts off and polishes to a fair-thee-well. If you’re waiting for some sharp left turn that will take “Populaire” back into the cynical shadows of 2013, you’ll wait forever.
Fortunately for Rose and Louis, they don’t have to wait that long.
What? And you thought there would be an unhappy ending?
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains a scene of sexuality and an ever-present cloud of tobacco smoke. In French with subtitles. 111 minutes.