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 a secretary one town over. Her employer is Louis Echard (a snarling Romain Duris, under the impression that smarm is charm), a thirty-ish insurance man still-pining for the one that got away.  Though Rose isn't much of a secretary, she manages to keep her job thanks to an impromptu spin at the typewriter.  Turns out our girl can type, and how!

Director Regis Roinsard sets this all up with narrative economy. Ten quick minutes into the film and 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 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 because for the subsequent ninety, the characters never develop further. Rose always remains the cute ingénue who can type like the wind; 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 total blanks, there is at least some attempt to flesh out Duris' Louis. He gets a monologue about his days in La Resistance (indicative of a whole different kind of narrative laziness, but that's for another article) and gets to speak to other characters, including a married couple played by Shaun Benson and Berenice Bejo. Rose has a disapproving father who shows up for all of eighty seconds, and not much else. Save the typewriter.

And this gets at the film's biggest problem. While the 1950/60s comedies Populaire so tryingly apes took place before Women's Lib kicked into high gear, they always presented a push and pull between the sexes. To use an academic term that I will subsequently spare you from, the female characters had some degree of agency. Rose, however, 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. She has no interests outside of typing and pleasing, 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 just 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 offensive about a film where a man holes up his secretary and works her fingers numb; where a man edges towards and then withholds warmth and affection at all intervals, all while she passively assents. Well, not entirely offensive. What rankles about Populaire is its lack of self-awareness. The fake uplift, the  romantic comedy beats.  And that treacly sentimentality, lacquered in several coats at the very end, when the maudlin music swells and the characters' eyes meet. That's just 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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