'Populaire': Witty, wise and wonderful
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
There's little chance that a large portion of the moviegoing population has been crying out for a French-language, '50s-set film about competitive speed-typing -- that's just a given. It's also completely acceptable, totally understandable and exactly what will make the unrelenting charm of "Populaire" that much sweeter for those who take in the fizzy French confection. A delight through and through, "Populaire" is unabashedly dizzy, fluffy and sweet, but it's also genuinely funny with an unexpectedly emotional center. It's also perhaps the only film ever made to make speed-typing competitions look as exciting and vital as any other major-league sport.
The first thing we see as "Populaire" strikes up is a shiny new typewriter displayed in a shop window. It says one word -- "TRIUMPH" -- no, literally it says "triumph." It's the brand name. The second thing we see is our inevitable champion, the charming and unrefined Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) plucking it out of its place of honor to practice her typing skills in the dead of night. Country mouse Rose, sick of spending her days in her papa's dry-goods shop in the tiny village of St. Fraimbault, is intent on taking her one skill -- typing -- to the big city (or at least to Normandy's Lisieux). Self-taught, Rose utilizes the two-finger method of typing, and what she lacks in style, grace and finesse, she more than makes up for with raw speed. That doesn't mean so much to her potential boss Louis Échard (Romain Duris) -- at least at first, as he chides Rose for showing up to her interview touting the "bare minimum" of a skill set -- but soon Louis sees the competitive potential in Rose. He may also see some other kind of potential in her, if you know what we mean (this is, after all, a romantic comedy.)
A former athlete bent on impressing both his American best pal (Shaun Benson) and his gorgeous wife (a former ex of Louis that he seems to have never quite gotten over, played by Bérénice Bejo), Louis needs something to make him feel that he's still got it, at least competitively speaking. With limited opportunities, coaching a speed-typing champion seems like his best option (and, silly as it may sound, such competitions were quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and still occur today). Rose, of course, seems like his best possible competitor.
While her training as Louis' secretary is minimal (leading to all sorts of adorable missteps in the office), her boss quickly puts Rose into some serious typing training at their shared home (Rose, a good girl, of course has her own room). Like any good sports film, there are starts and stops, triumphs and failures, and all kinds of wacky methods of bettering Rose's talent on the way to the big game (er, big speed-typing competition).
Along the way, "Populaire" never ceases to be fresh, funny, romantic, witty and wise. It's wonderful, unexpected stuff (and fluff) with a retro soundtrack and vintage design that only add to its charm and pop sensibilities. Its expected plotting doesn't diminish its appeal, with a faint fairy-tale feel only adding to the sense that "Populaire" is a classic film already made new.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice magazine and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in New York City.