After a cavalcade of mediocre rom-coms from the other side of the Atlantic, it falls to France to beat the Americans at their own game. A winning homage to the Technicolor delights of Hollywood’s golden age, the beautifully coiffed Populaire might have been a vehicle for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in a parallel universe. But stars Romain Duris and Déborah François are more than acceptable replacements, and the plot is every bit as enjoyably predictable (and predictably enjoyable) as its forebears.
This romanticised vision of an age when the jet set were just taking off - and post-war austerity was at last dying off - is perfectly captured in the joyful animated opening title sequence, setting the light-hearted tone for everything that follows. Rose Pamphyle (François), feeling trapped by her small town existence where she works for her father, applies for a secretarial position with Louis Échard (Duris), a modestly successful businessman in Normandy. She gets the job, despite her complete inexperience, by demonstrating her fast two-fingered typing. Sensing an untapped talent, Louis enters Rose in a regional typing competition and sets about reinventing her, Pygmalion-style. Naturally this leads to a romantic connection between the two, complicated by Louis’ former relationship with his best friend’s wife, Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo).
Populaire is without a doubt one of the most cheerful films you’ll see this year. The bright pastel palette and catchy soundtrack (making abundant use of Leroy Anderson’s ‘Forgotten Dreams’) deftly evoke the optimistic tone of the late 1950s setting, and of Rose herself: the sense that the predetermined lives of previous generations no longer hold sway, and that new opportunities are there for the taking. It’s all relative of course - the days of women aspiring to the heady heights of secretary and general office dogsbody are thankfully behind us - but nevertheless it was a time when at least some old barriers were being broken down. The film captures that turning point very nicely.
That said, Populaire is no more realistic than your average Doris Day picture. It’s clear director Régis Roinsard has an affection for the period and its films; his refreshingly unironic approach, rejecting both cynicism and revisionism, allows an innocence to bloom onscreen, which only makes the central romance all the more endearing. The two leads play very nicely off each other, Rose’s sweet yet determined temperament cutting through Louis’ laid back, professional exterior, teasing out hidden disappointments and latent guilt. These are never explored in any great depth (nor did they need to be), but still add a hint of zest to the relationship.
The chief flaw here is one of overlength - not unusual in the genre these days - as the story gives Rose an opportunity to emerge victorious not once or even twice, but three times. It’s a case of gilding the lily, whilst also getting a sneaky one over the US; which is ironic, as Populaire feels like it has been precision-engineered to crossover to the American market in the wake of the success of The Artist (Louis’ best friend is Bob, an ex-GI who stayed behind at the end of the war). It takes the edge off an otherwise hugely charming tale.