The Weinstein brothers love France, and it’s a très mutual appreciation society—the French love Bob and Harvey right back. Last year, the brothers were honored at the French embassy after a screening of The Intouchables—which everyone assumed would be the brothers’ next big foreign blockbuster after The Artist, which had swept the 2012 Academy Awards with five wins (including Best Picture—the first-ever foreign film from a non-English-speaking country to do so). But The Intouchables dealt with dicier subject material (race, disability) with a sugarcoating that one reviewer unfavorably compared to Driving Miss Daisy. The Intouchables didn’t even make it into the foreign film category of the Academy Awards last year, though it was short-listed. In the end, it was nominated for nothing.
But the Weinsteins know what to do if they fall off a horse— find another thoroughbred like the one that rode them all the way to the finish line. Populaire, directed by Régis Roinsard, is this year’s contender: a cute, romantic comedy set in the era of Mad Men instead of The Artist’s 1920s pre-talkies, with little nods to everything from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Hitchcock to Amélie—and maybe even a hint of Godard’s more whimsical period. Still, there is no doubt that this heartwarming little number—about a gamine gal Pamphyle (Déborah François), who attempts to become the world’s fastest typist and in the process falls for her curmudgeonly boss (the delicious Romain Duris from Le Divorce, who looks like he should be dueling with pirates in pantaloons and a billowy shirt instead of running an insurance agency)—is meant to invoke the same sentimental feelings that lead audiences to fall in love with a silent movie two years ago.
Here’s an image that sums up Populaire, whether you like the film or not: a room full of a hundreds of girls in petticoats and ribbons sitting at their typewriters, pecking feverishly until that harmonious “clang!” signifying the end of a type bar. While “less is more” seems to be the director’s motto when it comes to creating characters, dialogue and compelling plots, Mr. Roinsard is a true artiste when it comes to visually assembling a scene: The costumes are stunning even in their uniformity (perhaps because of it), and the set design is half-French farce/musical and half-cinematography that could be called—and don’t shoot the messenger— Coen Brothers-esque madcappery. (Think The Hudsucker Proxy or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?)
This makes sense, considering that the cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman is the guy behind both The Artist and OSS 117, a franchise that spoofs 1960 spy flicks. Charlotte David, who did those tight-fitting little dresses, also worked on OSS 117 and revealed that Mr. Roinsard paid so much attention to the clothing that he even oversaw the creation of the lingerie worn by the actresses.
If you like to watch pretty people in period clothing, Populaire is a no-brainer, as long as its gender politics don’t bother you. There’s a difference between commenting on the battle of the sexes during the ’50s and ’60s and reveling in it through a rosy nostalgic gaze. Pamphyle is happy with her little lifestyle, but she’s just so gosh-darn bad at being a secretary that thank god her boss is able to persuade her to “become someone” by being the best typist in the worldwide pool. She does so, believing, at first, that it will make him love her, which he does, but in that Pygmalion pride way, like it’s all well and good to accomplish something as long as a man has taught you everything you know.
Here’s a good litmus test: If you think Mad Men is the best show ever but sometimes gets so gloomy and is in desperate need of more swooning office romances (why do Joan and Peggy have to keep trying to break that glass ceiling when all it will do is get glass in their hair?), then you’re going to love Populaire. The rest of us will just have to keep calm and think of Audrey Hepburn.
Written By: Régis Roinsard, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt
Directed by: Régis Roinsard
Running Time: 110 min.