Saturday 7 July 2018

From the archive: "Populaire"

In the interests of full disclosure, and by way of bolstering the recommendation that follows, Populaire is the kind of light, silly, candy-coloured fluff I generally react to as if it were asbestos. (One precedent: 2003’s all-grinning, Ewan McGregor/Renee Zellweger-starring pastiche Down with Love, which absolutely went down like mesothelioma.) What writer-director Régis Roinsard has achieved here is to bolster this throwback kind of romcom with elements of a very leftfield, knowingly daft sports movie – thereby broadening its appeal beyond girly girls to viewers of all stripes and persuasions.

It’s 1958, and mousy ingénue Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) has just landed her dream secretarial position within the offices of dishy insurance nabob Louis Echard (Romain Duris). Rose has a very specific skillset – speed-typing – which Louis fosters by entering her into a regional touch-typing competition, installing her in his bachelor pad, and encouraging her to peck out passages from Stendhal and Flaubert, much as Henry Higgins got Eliza Doolittle to roll tongue-twisters and marbles around her mouth.

A deal of sorts is bashed out – he gives her confidence, and receives in return a better PA, some respite from the emptiness of his life, and distraction from a lingering wartime trauma – but we’re given cause to wonder whether this trainer-fighter relationship can develop into anything more: My Fair Lady may have ended happily, but Rocky didn’t end with Sly Stallone taking up with Burgess Meredith.

Roinsard packs each frame with the surface pleasures one has come to expect from this subgenre: co-ordinated colours, period detail (here extending to a serious fetish for the ribbons and ringers of manual typewriters), choreographed dance numbers to songs that will probably sound far less obscure to a home crowd.

There’s even a love scene that pays daffy homage to Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak’s hotel-room tryst in Vertigo, and if you were determined to be grumpy about Populaire, you could say its sexual politics – that this shrewish klutz of a girl needs to be tamed and trained by the men in her life – have been imported in more or less uninflected from the Hitchcock era. (That said, the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon would seem to suggest this master-and-servant obsession endures even today, and not only among men.)

What elevates it above the conventional is a cast of performers best known for somewhat more challenging work, who hone in on the feeling lurking beneath the bright hues and knowing smiles and thereby move us beyond the flagrant artificiality of the premise: the presence of Bérénice Bejo from The Artist – a film that achieved precisely that – as Louis’s erstwhile sweetheart is significant, in this respect.

The rangy Duris, looking sharper in suits than any of the Mad Men, comes to invest his usual shark-like smirk with an appealing, weathered ruefulness. And François – as The Page Turner and The Child suggested, a far more capable actress than the wispy gamines the French traditionally foist upon us – gives a softness that could so easily signify vulnerability or submissiveness the vivid shape of promise yet to be realised; her determined typing face is a thing of beauty, and a joy whenever Roinsard has the good sense to cut back to it.

Those competitive dactylography set-pieces – and no, I can’t believe I’m stringing these words together, either – are given hustle and zing, but Populaire’s real charm lies in the character business that comes in between, invested as it has been with real tenderness and genuine chemistry: perhaps only a French filmmaker and actors could so successfully transform an attempt to relieve the onset of RSI into a moment of seduction.

(MovieMail, May 2013)

Populaire screens on BBC2 tonight at 1.20am.

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