In 1959, a small town girl makes her way to the dizzying heights of secretary-hood for a powerful but lax French businessman. Although Rose (Deborah Francois) is a terrible secretary, she is a brilliant typist, and it is not long before her boss Louis (Romain Duris) enters her in a speed typing competition with dreams of her going all the way to the top.
Retro cinema is all the rage at the moment, in case you haven’t noticed, with films such as The Artist smashing expectations around the world and Mad Men still being one of the biggest shows on TV. The premise of Populaire is not unlike a season arc of Mad Men, and as Rose and Louis grow closer, their relationship ends up feeling similar to that of Don Draper and Peggy Olsen from the hit AMC show. Unlike Peggy, However, Rose does not have dreams of outdoing the men; she is happy to stay in the female role of secretary and end up marrying the boss – oh cliché! However, as the film progresses, Rose challenges the men around her, while somehow still fitting into gender stereotypes.
As Rose, Deborah Francois is sparkling and bright. She is feisty and demure but balances the two facets of the character well. It is just a shame that as a character, Rose is let down during the final act of the film and any groundbreaking that could have gone on is lost in a swell of love. Romain Duris is just mysterious and stoic enough to keep the audience’s interest piqued, and along with Francois, the two make a winning combination.
The film is comedic and light and, makes gentle commentary on the time period it was set in, but rarely goes further than that. The idea of setting Rose up as a speed typing champion may seem dull, but it is hard not to root for the plucky young woman. As well as this, the sets are sumptuous and the music is wonderfully fun.
Where Populaire falls down, however, is through some lacklustre decisions with regard to the characters – particularly in the final act – and the decision to play with the gender streotypes of the 50s, but not actually do much about them, and certainly not do anything the challenge them. The world of Populaire is one where men and women are kept in their roles and, while Berenice Bejo’s character goes some way to playing with what she has been given and Rose is determined to escape her small-town life, none of the other characters seem interested in doing anything to change their lot in life. As well as this, at 111 minutes, the film feels overlong and stretched, with the final act dragging its heels.
In all, Populaire is a light, funny and entertaining film. Francois and Durais make a wonderful team and the film is beautiful to look at. However, Populaire stumbles in its final act and in some poor decisions made about characters.