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Playful ‘Populaire’ drags but maintains charm

Romain Duris and Deborah Francois in a scene from “Populaire.”
Romain Duris and Deborah Francois in a scene from “Populaire.”

“Populaire” is a frothy little French period piece with a taste of gender role history tucked into its boy-meets-secretary romance.

It’s from the “Mad Men” era, when men were real men, so long as real men were chain-smoking, hard-drinking sexual harassers who ran the world. That’s the sort of fellow Rose Pamphyle (Deborah Francois) might have in mind the first time she caresses the shiny new Triumph typewriter in the window of her father’s general merchandise in a tiny town in Normandy.

It’s 1958, and shy, pretty and naive Rose longs to dig into “the latest fashion” – becoming a secretary. She teaches herself to type – hunting and pecking to beat the band. Then she takes the bus to the big city – Lisieux, in this case.

Louis Echard (Romain Duris) is an insurance agent in need of a secretary, a dashing, dismissive fellow with a hint of “cad” about him. He doesn’t think much of her klutziness, her lack of polish and two-fingered typing. But she gets the job.

The first place “Populaire” trips us up is in Echard’s motivations. There’ll be no chasing the new secretary around the desk, here. He’s never less than gallant. What he sees in Rose is a champion speed-typist, a woman who can win glory for herself and maybe her competitive boss.

First, he has to convince her he’s not really interested in her. Then he has to convince us.

“Populaire” takes its title from a French typewriter company, and that’s fitting as the typing competitions take over the picture and make it outstay its welcome, just a smidgen. The typing contests are given giddy, swirling camera work. But the film isn’t quite playful enough to skip merrily by. The story slows down to a drag here and there.

The leads are charming, the supporting players (Berenice Bejo plays Echard’s old flame, Shaun Benson is that old flame’s go-getter/ wise-cracking American husband) are stellar.

Will Louis and Rose connect? More to the point, how long will it take? It’s no sin that the movie doesn’t really pursue anything deeper than that, with its 1950s French pop music montages (the typewriting training scenes) and dance interlude.

The film, in French with English subtitles, reminded me of that pre-feminist souffle “Potiche” that Catherine Deneuve starred in a few years back. Less ambitious, perhaps. A little lighter in “message.” But “Populaire” is never less than cute.

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