Speed typing isn’t the best known of international sporting challenges. But during the ’50s – when waists were small, men were mad and cigarette smoke formed a chignon scarf in the air – competitively firing off a machine-gun racket of clattering typewriter keys was all the rage.
Populaire is a beautifully constructed romantic comedy which weaves together the light wit of a classic screwball with the thrilling tension of a sports movie. The first time Louis (Romain Duris) sees the manic pace with which his soon-to-be secretary Rose (Déborah François) can type, he’ss whipped into an almost orgasmic frenzy and decides to start training her to be a world champion.
Sexual attraction crackles between the pair from the off, but while Rose quickly falls for her charming but emotionally closed-off boss, Louis will not admit that his obsession with her is anything more than a coach’s passion for a star athlete. Best known as the scowling, angular hero of Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Duris is delightful here as a modern day Henry Higgins, constantly revealing glimpses of the vulnerability that lies beneath Louis’ tightly coiled nonchalance.
François’ Rose is equally endearing, combining comic klutziness with the spirited temper of a liberated Eliza Doolittle. The tension between them finally leads to an argument in which they are shaking with anger and desire. “What makes you think this would be my first time?” Rose challenges him. “It’s the 1950s – modern girls don’t wait for marriage anymore!” “Good,” Louis fires back. “That’s one less thing for me to have to teach you.” She slaps him, he slaps her back. They kiss.
Writer/director Régis Roinsard’s debut feature is a remarkably assured piece of work. From the moment the stylishly drawn cartoon title sequence sashays across the screen you know that you’re in a pair of capable (fast-typing and beautifully manicured) hands. For those with no natural interest in any team or track-based competitions, the enjoyment of any sports film is a triumph of filmmaking over subject matter. Yet it’s still remarkable how, with deft and confident editing, Roinsard manages to make competitive typing into such a gripping spectator sport.
And although the film follows the classic – and emotionally satisfying – structure of so many other obstacle-filled romantic comedies, Roinsard manages to take enough small, unexpected detours that the narrative never feels tiresome or predictable.
He gives enough time to the secondary characters – the excellent Shaun Benson and The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo – to make them and their relationship with Louis feel real and complex. With a joyfully good period soundtrack and a gorgeous sense of style, Populaire has the confidence of vintage Hollywood, but the mischievousness of a modern girl who doesn’t wait to do what she’s told.
This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Little White Lies