A perky young secretary seems to be just the type for a French insurance agent in “Populaire,” a colorful and impeccably styled romantic comedy that manages to turn the speed-typing competitions of the 1950s into entertaining cinematic fodder. Helmer Regis Roinsard’s classy first feature stars handsome, terrific actors Romain Duris and Deborah Francois, and ably balances melodrama, romance and humor, even if the story never quite takes an unexpected turn or reveals any deeper emotions. The local, Nov. 28, release will be a sizable hit; the Weinstein Co. has already signed on the dotted line for U.S. rights.
It’s 1958 when Rose Pamphyle (Francois), a vivacious 21-year-old blonde from the sticks, shows up for a job interview at an insurance agency in a nearby town. Rose’s desire to be modern and become a secretary is so strong that she’ll do whatever it takes to get the job. Her potential employer, the debonair Louis (Duris), in his mid-30s, doesn’t warm to her immediately, which only makes the competitive Rose more determined to win him over.
It’s a classic romantic-comedy setup that could have come straight from the era in which it’s set, right down to its rather naive notion that being an office assistant is somehow the apex of female self-determination. What finally makes Louis hire the country rose are her impressive typing skills, which awaken in him a competitive side that he satisfies by sending “his” secretary to the regional and then national speed-typing competitions. To help her train for the endeavors — she initially types with just two fingers — he demands that she move in with him.
Written by Roinsard, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt, the screenplay tosses in some complications involving Louis’ former g.f., Marie (Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”), and her American husband, Bob (Shaun Benson), whose character, along with the story’s eventual detour to New York, seems conveniently designed to appeal to U.S. auds. Marie and Louis are still good friends, and though the pic doesn’t have the gut to reunite them, their dynamic does hold surprises, including the fact that Marie, though a married mom, is most clearly the woman living with one foot already in the 1960s.
That said, the story’s main trajectory is fairly straightforward, and the chemistry of the actors has to compensate for the predictable beats and lack of emotional depth. Luckily, Duris and Francois make a mightily appealing couple, playing their prickly initial encounters just right before moving closer to something potentially more than a simple boss/employee, trainer/champion relationship. Bejo and Benson are equally engaging in their smaller roles.
Also keeping auds invested in the story is the impressive mise-en-scene of the typing contests; the staging is particularly vibrant, using whirling dolly shots and pacey cutting to suggest the ’50s clerical equivalent of a sporting event, where all eyes happen to be on the use of the carriage return levers that indicate that another full line has been typed.
Production design and costumes are incredibly detailed, but in a breezy rather than a fastidious way; art direction and lighting, in particular, pay tribute to filmmakers ranging from Hitchcock and Hawkes to Minnelli and Sirk.