By Kenneth Turan, Tribune Newspapers critic
10:11 AM EDT, September 12, 2013
The less seriously the genial French comedy "Populaire" takes itself, the more amusing it is. Fortunately, with small exceptions, this film doesn't take itself very seriously at all.
Nominated for five Cesars and a box-office hit in France, "Populaire" is, for the most part, the fluffiest of French light comedies, though its accomplished stars, Romain Duris and Deborah Francois, have previously made strong impressions in serious roles: Duris in Jacques Audiard's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and the Belgian-born Francois in the Dardenne brothers' "L'Enfant."
Here they come together in the first film by director and co-writer Regis Roinsard, a debut that is pleased with itself and confident you'll feel the same way. Dealing with the world of competitive speed typing (yes, there was such a thing), "Populaire" is not only set in the 1950s but it mostly could also have been made in the same chirpy decade.
Using a bright pastel palette that brings Jacques Demy's "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" to mind, and filled with sprightly music that might have come from a TV game show, "Populaire's" general plot outline couldn't be more predictable, and that's the way it was planned.
"Populaire" takes us back to a time when being a secretary was a golden ladder out of small-town ennui. The film's Rose Pamphyle (Francois) is that archetypical modern girl, but one who discovers that traditional satisfactions mean as much as up-to-date ones.
Rose is introduced late one night covetously eyeing the Triumph manual typewriter sitting in the place of honor in her father's shop window in her tiny Normandy town. She is transfixed by this glamorous object, and soon is typing up a storm, two-finger style.
With this skill under her belt, Rose moves to the nearby city of Lisieux, where Louis Echard (Duris), a suave, chain-smoking ("Only a law would stop me," he cracks) insurance agent, hires her as his secretary against his better judgment.
A bit on the clumsy side, Rose is no great shakes as a secretary, but Louis, a frustrated athlete with a drive to be No. 1, notices her typing abilities (how could he not?) and determines to enter her in a regional speed-typing contest.
Louis' best friend, Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson) — an American soldier who stayed on after the Normandy invasion and married Louis' childhood sweetheart, Marie ( "The Artist's" Berenice Bejo) — thinks he's nuts, but even after a rocky start, Louis is nothing if not determined.
So determined, in fact, that he decides that Rose has to learn touch typing if she is to progress to the next stage and has the young woman chastely move into his house so that she'll have more time to practice.
From this point on, "Populaire" explores two parallel questions: First, how far can Rose go in the speed-typing world? Can she conquer Normandy? Paris? Even the world, which in this case means the dreaded American champion?
Second, and equally important, can she conquer Louis' heart? The poor man, who apparently has never seen a romantic comedy in his life, insists on viewing Rose less as a beautiful woman and more as an athlete must be honed to competitive perfection.
If Louis were hipper to the system, one of "Populaire's" drawbacks, its nearly two-hour length, would have taken care of itself. Other downsides include the film's periodic misguided attempts to bring itself into the 21st century, including serious discussions about relationships and an out-of-nowhere sex scene strong enough to give the film an R rating.
"Populaire" is on firmer ground, frankly, when it pumps up the silliness. Its best moments are the way it handles the mass speed-typing competitions, presented with the verve of a keyboard Busby Berkeley. Even if Rose is frequently told she has to get serious, this film is best when it doesn't follow suit.
"Populaire" -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for a scene of sexuality)
Running time: 1:51
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre
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