Populaire is set in the high stakes world of competitive speed typing. Yes, you read that right, competitive speed typing. This is France in 1958 and any competition, any activity that might distract the mind from dwelling too long on the recent war is welcome. The girl with a gift for typing is Rose (Déborah François), just a small town girl, living in a lonely French world. Her father (Frédéric Pierrot) owns a dry goods shop, and has plans to hand the shop over to her and her betrothed (who works at the local mechanic shop), but Rose wants none of it. For some unexplained reason, she is transfixed on the Transom typewriter that occupies the storefront. Her destiny was to type! Rose wants out and applies for a job in a nearby town as a secretary for an insurance salesman, Louis (Romain Duris). Rose doesn’t have any credentials, but boy she can type! Louis hires her, but not because she would make for a good secretary, or even a good wife, but because she could be the fastest typist around. Louis has been a life long competitor, but his moment of glory never came, and now it’s past for good. In Rose, he sees a chance to mold someone into the one thing he never was, Number One.
Louis assumes the duties of Rose’s coach and manager. He moves Rose into his house and keeps her under his strict tutelage. Rose learns to type with all ten fingers, to type by touch, not sight, and to keep improving her keystroke speed. She transcribe classic French literature, takes piano lessons, and all the while, Rose starts to fall for Louis. Louis has a thing for Rose as well, but he is still keeping a torch alive for his best friend’s wife (Bérénice Bejo), who happened to be his childhood crush. Louis isn’t very good at letting things go, too bad they don’t have competitions for that.
Rose starts to competes and starts to win. She is getting better and better and uses it to get closer and closer to Louis. They spend one night together, but the next day he goes and sabotages the relationship. Louis is one of those characters, the guy who is practically perfect except he wouldn’t allow himself the pleasure of a perfect life. He tells himself and others that he did it so that Rose wouldn’t be held back by love at the World Championship and that anger is what she needs to win, but they all know the real reason why. Not to worry, this is not the kind of movie that is going to go out on a tragic note. Louis soon sees the light and races back to his beloved who has been waiting for him the whole time. Cue the swelling strings!
Truffaut once wrote, “Cinema is an art of the woman, that is, of the actress. The director’s work consists in getting pretty women to do pretty things.” Régis Roinsard keeps this wonderful tradition alive and well in the work of Déborah François. François radiates beauty that jumps back and forth between cutely coquettish and downright smoldering. Look at the scene of her waiting for Louis in bed, not sure which pose she wants him to find her in. She tries a couple, any one of them would have bowled him over. Look at the multitude of shots of François that are clearly in homage to the great blondes of Alfred Hitchcock. A direct Vertigo copy could have been disastrous if the woman in the dress didn’t do the heavy lifting. But it works, the light is right, the music is Tristan and Isolde, and the blonde is stunning.
Populaire (the title is taken from a particular brand of typewriter that Rose advertises for) is the kind of movie that Hollywood studios use to own back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Curtiz, Cukor, Le Cava, Hitchcock, would all get the best stars, gorgeous sets, lovely gowns, and do what they came there to do, entertain. Characters said the right things at the right moments, and better yet, other characters listened. They were charming, funny, and looked so beautiful that everyone wished that life was more like a movie. Sadly, Hollywood lost that touch, and couldn’t make a movie with this much charm if they had the script slid under their noses. Thankfully, France has taken up the cause and fashioned a movie that isn’t just set in the late 1950s, but is shot like it’s the 1950s. The camera dollies, cranes, and sweeps across the sets and the actors (no shaky handheld here) while the piano keys tinkle and the strings swell. Cheesy you say? No doubt. The plot is familiar and old hat and constructs it’s boy-meets-girl story so that the grand confession of love takes place during the momentous championship. Campy, you say? You bet. You can even see the ending coming a mile a way! Predictable? Sure, but wasn’t that the ending you were hoping for? Sarcasm and cynicism sure is easy and sells headlines, but then again, where did that giant smile that just split your face from ear-to-ear come from?