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September 20, 2013

There have been a lot of great movies out lately, but you know what I haven’t seen much of this year? good romantic comedies. Luckily, a particularly nice one is now making the American rounds after coming out in France last year. Populaire is a charming throwback to some great movies from the 1950s and ’60s.

Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is a shopkeeper’s daughter from a small village in Basse-Normandie in the late ’50s, but she wants more than to be married off to the local mechanic’s son. No, she wants to be a secretary, with all the modern fun and excitement that entails, following her boss around the world.

She makes her way to the commune of Lisieux to apply at the insurance agency of Louis Échard (Romain Duris). He cuts a dashing figure in his sharp suits, and every aspiring secretary seems to have turned out for the job, most of whom are far more capable than Rose is. Indeed, she’s a bit of a klutz, but there’s one thing she’s good at: typing. Even with her unstudied hunt-and-peck she’s one of the fastest typists Louis has seen.

Louis takes her on, and she is predictably terrible as a secretary. His friend, Bob (Shaun Benson) cracks jokes about his real intentions in hiring Rose, but it’s true that Louis has bigger plans than mere office work: a speed-typing competition. He sees Rose’s talent and wants to nurture it. He moves her into his big, empty house to train her night and day in proper technique — echoes, here, of My Fair Lady — and hires Bob’s wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), to cross-train Rose on the piano.

When the next year’s local contest comes around, Rose is more than ready, but beyond that is the national title, and international competition beyond that, including the American champion and her astounding 512 strokes-per-minute world record. And, of course, the developing romance between Rose and Louis.

Director Régis Roinsard captures the feel of these great mid-century romantic comedies perfectly. Light and charming, Populaire still manages to bring up some serious emotional depth along the way. It doesn’t hurt that François is the spitting image of a blonde Audrey Hepburn. Duris isn’t quite a carbon copy of Gregory Peck or George Peppard or Cary Grant, but he’d have fit in easily with that group fifty years ago.

The set and costume design are spot-on — a treat for those who enjoyed the old styles from the earlier seasons of Mad Men. The soundtrack is peppered with lounge music and light jazz from the ’50s, along with a score by Rob and Emmanuel d’Orlando that recalls the light orchestral work familiar from so much television, short film, and comedy of that era. From top to bottom, you couldn’t ask for a better homage to the romantic comedies from half a century ago, and anyone who loves those films should be glad to add a new one to the list.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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