Friday, September 06, 2013

Populaire: Love in the Time of Typewriters

It was a simpler, analog time when assistants were called secretaries.  They were always women, but they were considered “modern” women.  Régis Roinsard pays tribute to the women in the late 1950’s workforce and the romantic comedies of their era with Populaire (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Rose Pamphyle longs to leave her sleepy provincial village for a big city job as a sophisticated secretary.  She makes it as far as Lisieux, the nearest sizable city for any interview with Louis Échard’s small but respectable insurance company.  Frankly, she lacks most of the skills required for the position, except typing—sort of.  Even with two fingers she is a speed demon.

Recognizing Pamphyle’s raw talent, Échard decides to forgo her dubious clerical assistance so he can train her full time as a competitive speed typist.  Échard is considerably more intense as a coach than Pamphyle is as his protégée.  She has other concerns, inevitably developing strong feelings of attraction for the suave former resistance fighter.  Of course, he seems to have a hard time recognizing his perfect rom-com match.

Fully stocked with stylish circa-1959 trappings, Populaire is bound to be compared to Mad Men, but it largely replaces the zeitgeisty angst with old fashioned romance.  Still, it also provides a mostly affectionate time capsule look at a time when Pamphyle was considered rather bold for pursuing an office career and smoking in the office was no big deal.  Just seeing the cross-the-body manual return is a vivid reminder how much has changed in the last fifty-some years.  Frankly, for some younger viewers, Pamphyle might as well be chiseling in stone.

While Populaire is a bright and colorful period piece (thanks to first rate contributions from cinematographer Guilaume Schiffman, production designer Sylvie Olivé, and costume designer Charlotte David), but it has some real heart beneath the froth.  Déborah François brings an acute sensitivity to Pamphye.  Her romantic chemistry with Romain Duris’s Échard is believably awkward but still smolders.  Yet, perhaps the most emotionally resonate moments involve his scenes with The Artist’s Bérénice Béjo as Marie Taylor, the lover he pushed away during the war for reasons of self denial.  She is an unexpectedly deep character, fully brought to life by Béjo in her comparatively limited screen time.

Populaire is pleasing to the eye and the ear, including some charming cha-cha-chas about typing, as well as timeless standards, from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald.   It is not a big picture in any sense, but it goes down smooth and leaves audiences satisfied.  Recommended for a fans of French cinema and retro romantic comedies, Populaire opens today (9/6) in New York at the Village East.