SIFF Review: "Populaire"

Directed by Régis Roinsard 
Starring Déborah François, Romain Duris, Bérénice Bejo and Shaun Benson
Foreign, Comedy
111 Mins

Filmed in the whimsy stylings of French New Wave, Populaire jars the bay window open and lets the breezy charm waft in and take the helm. Tackling the inconspicuous topic of typing competitions in 1959, directorRégis Roinsardturns what should have been bland and academic into an exciting match of athleticism, fueled by a cheery performance fromDéborah François
Living in a small French village, young Rose Pamphyle (François) dreams of a fanciful life filled with big wigs, hot locales and travel, travel, travel. Her father though, has other plans for Rose and has promised her hand to the son of the local mechanic. In the dead of night, Rose lives out a silent fantasy of a grander life, sneaking away to the one typewriter her father keeps at his store and hacking away at it. 

When Rose applies for a highly competitive position as secretary to
insurance man Louis Echard (Romain Duris), it is clear that she is under-qualified but lands the job after revealing her gift for speedy typing...with two fingers. Unknowingly igniting a fire in Louis, Rose's gift for typing stops her would-be employer in his tracks. Rose's unadulterated, cherry-blossom cuteness, which is perfectly articulated when she's typing so fast and furiously that her bra strap slips out, her hair comes undone and she haphazardly looks up at Louis and exasperatedly puffs the loose hair out of her eyes, lands her the much-envied position as Louis' secretary but it's not long before it's evident that she's not quite cut out for the job.

Her caution-to-the-wind attitude and total lack of professionalism wind up getting in the way of her job and so, intent that he can make her a world champion, Louis comprises with Rose that if she wants to keep her position and not be sent packing, she must train daily to become a master typist.

As Rose prepares for the Regional Championship, there are all sorts of exercises she must engage in from transcribing famous novels to learning to type blind to running alongside Louis as he jeers her on to go faster. The satirical montage is no rarity in the film world but here you don't feel the need to turn to your neighbor and scoff. Without debasing the charmed ambiance, Roinsard shows that he knows how to turn the norm to his advantage. He's able to skate over familiarity by carpeting everything with whimsy, transforming every potentially stale beat into an opportunity for cheery rapture. With this infectious nature, the film lives and breathes goodwill.

And even though this is an air of familiarity to the third act romantic woes, it's executed with a self-aware, satirical edge. While it hardly reinvents the wheel, it is a pleasing, nostalgic effort that is impossible to walk away from without a smile. Even the Scroogiest of people will be delighted by the airy attitude of Rosinsard's picture.

Breezy to a fault, Roinsard avoids making any biting political statements about the era of "modern women" except to give us a glimpse of faux-liberation stuffed behind an assistant's desk. Yes, the film is satirical but the satire is played more for laughs than for earnest investigation. Now is this really the film to cut open the stigma on the worldwide women's liberation movement?

Absolutely not. If anything, attempting to cram some critique on the era or philosophical judgment of the era into the film would have jumbled its easy-going angle and tipped it towards the insincere. Instead, Roinsard knows exactly what he's making and based on audience's overwhelming loving adoption of The Artist, this is sure to go down just as easily.

From the get go, the score is bubbly and inviting, setting the stage for the purely pleasant experience about to unwind. Similarly, the costume and set design are colorfully decadent and cheery, bringing to life this sugarcoated vision of the world. Even the globetrotting manages to maintain a sprightly sense of optimism. As to the artificiality of the history lesson, it clearly takes a filtered stance on snarky but friendly competition as global relations.

Depth was never the goal here and Roinsard scores major points for sticking to his flowery guns. Like similarly woozy Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, it's just a wonder something so fleet-footed, impractically sunny, and self-confident can still be so intoxicating and winning.

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