Review: In POPULAIRE, Candy Colors Hide A Rotten Core

That which glitters is so very, very far from gold in the new French film Populaire. Dig a little deeper into this superficial charmer and you'll find a core that borders on dreadful. I couldn't possibly recommend a film less.

It starts innocuously enough. Rose Pamphyle (up and coming Belgian actress Deborah Francois, whose magnetic charisma keeps this mess sadly afloat) is 21, suffocated by her small-town life, and looking for something more. She finds it, we are told, as an insurance company secretary one town over. Her employer is Louis Echard (a snarling Romain Duris, under the impression that smarm is charm), a 30ish bachelor still-pining for the one that got away. Rose's nearly botched job interview is saved at the last minute by an impromptu display of her typing prowess. The girl can type, and fast, and that gets her the job. 

Director Regis Roinsard sets this all up with narrative economy. Ten quick minutes into the film, the wheels of Louis' plan are already in motion. He's to be her trainer, her coach and her ref. She's to move into his house, in secret, and work work work. He's going to turn this mediocre secretary into the world's fastest, greatest typist. Why? Who knows, the film needs it to be so! 

Again, this all happens within the first ten minutes, which I mention again only to bring to light the fact that for the subsequent duration of this nearly two-hour film, the characters never develop further. Rose always remains the cute ingénue who can type like the wind, and Louis the unsmiling man-with-a-plan. Even later, when Rose sets out on her own after some high profile wins, the film refuses the characters any additional depth. She smiles and twinkles, he winces and broods, only now not directly over her shoulder in a two-shot.
It should come as no shock for a film that pays homage to the 1950s Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies to be resolutely superficial, but there's something particularly unseemly about the kind Populaire is peddling. Though both characters are ciphers, there is at least some attempt to flesh out Duris' Louis with a monologue about his days in La Resistance (indicative of a whole different kind of narrative laziness, but that's for another article) and a pair of best friends, a married couple played by Shaun Benson and Berenice Bejo. Rose has a disapproving father who shows up for all of 90 seconds, and not much else. Save the typewriter.

And this gets at this film's biggest problem. While the 1950/60s comedies Populaire so tryingly apes took place before the Women's Liberation movement kicked into high gear, there was always a push and pull between the characters of both sexes. To use some academic terms that I will henceforth spare you from, the women had some degree of agency. Rose is given nothing of the sort. She's shuffled into Louis' house and kept there in secret, because that's what he decides is best for her. She has no interests outside of typing and pleasing him, because, why should she? It's not so much that the film shows her as inseparable from the typewriter, but rather, that the she and the typewriter are one and the same. Both are mere objects, to be used, modified and optimized by smarter men. 

Look, I recognize that a film set in 1958 will depict a significantly different social setting than what we are used to in 2013. But there are ways of doing so without falling into the worst of that era's wrongheadedness. Peyton Reed's Down With Love is a terrific example. What I'm saying is: if you're going to make a film about what amounts to a light dominant-submissive relationship, then bloody own it! 

In and of itself, there's nothing inherently risible about a film about a man holing up his secretary, working her fingers numb, edging towards and then retracting and withholding warmth and affection at all intervals while she passively assents. Well, not entirely. What's most offensive is the lack of self-awareness. That treacly sentimentality lacquered in several coats as the music swells and the characters' eyes meet is the final straw. It need not go full John Waters, but it would be nice it weren't 50 shades of bleh.

The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, September 6. Visit the official site for more information.
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