Régis Roinsard scores a palpable hit with debut feature Populaire (2012), a romantic comedy about speed-typing, starring Déborah Francois, Romain Duris and The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo. Set in France at the tail end of the 1950s, Rose (Francois) a shopkeeper’s daughter dreams of escaping provincial life and making something of herself. She travels to Normandy for an interview with the boss of an insurance company, Louis Echard (Duris), and is delighted when he takes her on as his secretary. Rose is hopeless at her job and Louis considers letting her go, but her gift for typing feeds his addiction to competitive sport.
Louis becomes obsessed with training Rose to compete in the national speed-typing contests that were in vogue at the time. Louis invites Rose to lodge with him in his palatial home, so that he is better able to teach her to touch-type and slowly the pair fall in love. Insurance and typing may not sound like the most romantic of subjects, and both are unlikely themes for a big budget, lavishly shot, period romantic drama, but expect to be pleasantly surprised. Populaire has a great deal of charm. Much of this is down to the evident care, love and respect that the cast and crew bring to the film.
Guillaume Schiffman’s impressive cinematography is rich in colour and symbolism and there’s wonderful attention to period detail – from Charlotte David’s fabulous costumes to Sylvie Olive’s spectacular sets – and the actors have clearly studied how to walk, talk, kiss, smoke and carry themselves. Populaire is Roinsard’s homage to 1950s filmmaking and there are more than a few nods to various French and American cinema classics from the period. Rose wears her hair like Audrey Hepburn and has a picture of the star on her bedroom wall. There’s also a scene that recalls Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo. Ultimately, though, Francois invests Rose with her own particular mystique and charisma that we all fall for.
Of course, we know from the beginning that Louis and Rose will eventually get together. The fun is in the journey. Louis has never recovered from his break-up with childhood sweetheart Marie (Bejo), who married his American buddy Bob (Shaun Benson). But it is Marie who finally pushes Louis to swallow his pride and pursue his love for Rose. There’s a nasty moment when Louis insults Rose, she slaps him round the face, he slaps her back. And then they make love. Like Mad Men, Roinsard’s film certainly reflects the time in which it is set.
Populaire is full of gender stereotypes and deliberate chauvinism that may frustrate female viewers. However, although Rose’s choices are limited, she’s still no pushover. She doesn’t collapse when Louis deserts her and her resilience provides a hint of the liberating influences that are just around the corner. What it lacks in political correctness and emotional depth, Populaire more than makes up for with its feel-good factor, visual flair and a soaring soundtrack by Rob and Emmanuel d’Orlando.