Candy-colored to a potentially cavity-causing degree, Populaire is a bubbly regurgitation of retrograde romantic comedy tropes and reactionary sexual politics. It’s 1958, and pretty young thing Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is eager to escape her small French village, as well as a perfunctory marriage proposal and her father’s pharmacy, in hopes of becoming a city-dwelling secretary. Despite a mass of bespectacled sycophants also angling for the position as assistant to fancy-suited insurance man Louis Echard (Romain Duris), Rose nails the interview with her fast-fingered typewriter skills, though the fact that her pinned hair comes undone and dress slides off a bit while rapidly typing seems to also help. Louis offers her a week-long trial run, but his true intention isn’t initially apparent—and it’s not, as his crass American ex-pat friend claims, just to sleep with her, though it’s highly telegraphed that this is an inevitability as well.
Through a series of montages displaying Rose’s clumsiness, we’re shown—and told—repeatedly that she’s a horrible secretary (she pratfalls, accidentally shreds important documents, writes an appointment down on her boss’s sweaty palm, and drops multiple boxes of files). None of this matters, however, since Louis’s sportsmanship takes precedence over professionalism: “She’s a disaster, but when she types she’s fast, strong, and focused,” he explains to a friend. In order to keep her job, Rose must enter into a speed-typing championship. Louis believes, under his rigid tutelage, she can smoke the competition in Lower Normandy, then France, and finally the world—and, in the process, perhaps break the world record of 512 strokes per minute.
Beyond its unique choice of subculture (the world of competitive speed typing), Populaire settles into a too-comfortable groove, melding a sterile rags-to-riches romance plot with a recycled sports-film structure: My Fair Lady meets Rocky, then splattered with pastel paint. François is suitably cute, and pouty in moments of romantic frustration, but that’s all she’s really called upon to be. Duris, meanwhile, can’t seem to calibrate his boss character, awkwardly balancing a controlling and stern attitude a la Don Draper with a vulnerable ne’er-do-well rich-boy complex.
Populaire is France’s attempt at celebrating the retro chic that America has been appropriating and exacting for over a decade (from Down with Love to Mad Men). It exudes time-capsuled artifice and yet is too genuinely unironic to register as insightful pastiche. The film possesses a glib, tongue-in-cheek awareness that being a secretary was once a form of first-wave feminism, but its feeble attempt at commentary is stunted by pre-pop-art naïveté, celebrating its nostalgic flair for the late ’50s while overlooking the interest of investigating the era’s mores. Debut director Régis Roinsard, like Tim Burton, devotes an inordinate amount of care to perfecting the film’s art direction and framing, and at the expense of trying to improve the script and characterizations, which come off as predictable and one-dimensional, respectively. What also nags is the bloated, nearly two-hour running time, as well as the story’s air of inevitable victory and romantic coupling, which are wielded as if they’re an asset and not an ultimately dulling force. Entranced with its own allure of nostalgia, Populaire is merely a well-behaved crowd-pleaser, more able to placate than excite, and more dressed up than developed.