Debut director Régis Roinsard presents touch-typing as a romantic conceit in semi–successful Populaire, his 50s repackaging of My Fair Lady as a sports movie.
The plot follows Rose (Déborah François), a modern-minded mademoiselle from the local village with a WPM rate that will blow your mind. Despite her professional experience extending only as far as her father’s shop, she’s hired by eligible young insurer Louis (Romain Duris) after furiously hammering at his typewriter until her clothes start to fall off. But it transpires that Louis wants her for more than just typing: yes, he wants her for competitive speed-typing. Convinced he can nurture a world champion, he moves her into his mansion—suitcase, sexual tension and all—for typing training, making a very French mockery of the concept of “professional boundaries”.
There’s much to like in Populaire but most of it turns up in the movie’s sport-inclined second half. The first half, from the Bewitched-inspired title track, presents itself as a homage to ‘60s style rom-coms and the innocent scripted flirtation as best evinced by Audrey Hepburn. Cue klutz comedy, mucho pouting, and a grinding sense of the inevitable. The difference here is that the romance feels sped up (in the same way as the fingers of the speed-typist are sped up in the competition scenes), delivering the impression that the director grudgingly accepts the necessity of the romantic slog but is anxious to arrive at what he’s really interested in: speed-typing.
And the competitive speed-typing, the sports-minded second half of the film, is well done. The world of ‘50s competitive speed typing is finely realized (even the production values of the movie seem authentically dated) and Roinsard’s meticulous research produces a compelling backdrop to Rose and Louis’s relationship that yearns to overpower the staid rom-com plotting. That said, past the halfway point the barren antics of the first half miraculously bear—admittedly scant—emotional fruit and the tone seems to level out, although there are still laughable swings (Louis recounts a laugh-out-loud military experience which tries to convince us that death could be at all possible in this world where when a woman falls from a bicycle she lands looking cute and pointing towards the nearest gentleman with her legs widely spread).
The casting of Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and his character’s deranged single-mindedness suggest the desire for a darker, more complex movie, but the ultimate unevenness of his character ensures that any hint of a troubled—and potentially troubling—interior is never truly convincing.
A frothy, good-looking romp that’s ultimately enjoyable, Populaire suffers from being made in a post-Secretary/post-Mad Men world; it’s in the filmmakers’ stubborn denial of the modern context into which they’re releasing this bemusing throwback that they demonstrate the true depth of their empathy with the 1950s.