A frothy, nostalgic throwback to the glamorous rom-coms of yesteryear may seem like an unlikely battleground for the latest skirmish in the ongoing filmic war between France and America, but Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is just as obsessed with post-war emasculation as it is with pretty dresses, urban chic and the burgeoning empowerment of the working woman.
Deborah Francois, the Belgian actress who caught Cannes’ attention in the Dardennes’ L’Enfant and the psycho-sexual thriller The Page Turner, is delightfully ditzy as Rose Pamphyle, the country-bumpkin-turned-secretary whose record-breaking typing speed is a ticket to stardom for both her and her boss. However, Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) isn’t exactly a very convincing romantic partner, probably because his character, the stubborn insurance broker Louis Échard, is nursing a wounded ego after his country was occupied in World War 2 and liberated by, you guessed it, the Americans.
Populaire is a beautiful-looking film, with superb period costumes and production design, and as a featherlight genre riff that marries Rocky-like sports-movie moments to the functional art of typewriting, it is wholly unique and utterly charming. But, time and again, the film boomerangs back to its not-so-subtextual transatlantic sortie. Just when you feel ready to be whisked away by its lilting romance, it’s there: Louis’ motivation for encouraging Rose partly comes from his ongoing macho feud with a former American GI who came over in 1944 and didn’t just help liberate France and later make it his home, but dared to marry our hero’s first love (a somewhat wasted Berenice Bejo, whose appearance seems to be chiefly to invite comparisons to a similar period piece, The Artist).
This thematic throughline wouldn’t be such a drag if Roinsard had written a good, old-fashioned love story to go along with it, but in Populaire both the pride and prejudice of the couple’s romance are the man’s, and the emotional shortcomings he has to resolve aren’t, in fact, all that much to do with his super-cute lady-friend. Rose, meanwhile, falls for him seemingly from the off, so spends the majority of the film pratfalling about, hoping to grab Her Man’s attention. Instead, her personal challenge is more a case of dexterity - one that the film inflates to fill two hours of regional heats, national competitions, and even an international world tournament that takes the act Stateside.
There are flashes throughout of style, wit, and even sensuality as Rose experiences a flush of fame and becomes an icon to a new generation of sexy secretaries - but, when Rose’s success starts to become dwarfed by Louis’ rediscovery of his manhood, it becomes clear that, while this is supposedly a woman’s story, the typewriting fingers that bashed out its screenplay belonged to men.