A candy-coated French throwback to the Hollywood rom-coms of the ’50s—especially the ones starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day—Populaire is old-fashioned in more than just its pastel color scheme. Set in 1958, the film drops prospective sweethearts into the archaic arena of speed typing, where swift-handed secretaries compete to see who has the fastest fingers in the business. From Nowheresville, France, emerges a dark horse: klutzy hayseed Déborah François, who proves truly inept at office work but a wiz at the typewriter—and with just two digits, no less! Her coach and likely love interest is stealth softie Romain Duris, a slick insurance salesman who hides his sentimental side behind a veneer of callousness. Determined to win a bet with longtime American friend Shaun Benson, Duris grooms François for the contest, weaning her off the hunt-and-peck approach and moving her into his swanky pad for round-the-clock training (which for some reason includes long, intensive runs). Will the plucky heroine strike her way from the national competition to the international one? More crucially, will her monied mentor learn to see her as not just a sound investment, but also girlfriend material, and maybe even an equal?
Only those unversed in frothy, Weinstein-approved confections will wonder where Populaire is headed. The film’s value hinges less on its predictable love story—a comedy of bickering potential paramours, mixed with a road-to-the-finals sports fable—than on the leading lovers themselves. To that end, it’s a modest success. Seductively blowing the bangs from her eyes as she pounds away at the keys, François is screwball-charismatic in a role that would surely have gone to Audrey Tautou about 15 years ago. Duris, meanwhile, is like Don Draper with Guy Pearce’s bone structure; he has more smarm than charm, but there’s pleasure to be found in the shopworn spectacle of a hardass going soft. Drunk on art-deco artifice, Populaire locates a thin shred of genuine emotion in Duris’ interactions with his buddy’s wife (Bérénice Bejo, from The Artist), for whom he’s held a torch for decades. Somewhere out there, perhaps, there’s a deeper draft of the movie, one that places this rich relationship at center.
The real version, however, is all about sitcom-ish entanglements, as when Bejo sticks it to her not-so-secret admirer by telling his family that his protégé is his fiancée. When not lingering on such romantic mishaps, director Régis Roinsard is zooming in close on fingers in feverish motion. The film could double as a Revlon commercial; hand fetishists will go wild, though Populaire should appeal most directly to those with a yen for creepy power fantasies. For most of the movie, Duris treats his dream girl like dirt—rebuking her affections, criticizing her performance, and generally behaving like one of those controlling manager-husbands of rising starlets. The faintest flicker of a feminist spirit can’t erase the fact that this is a fairytale about becoming the world’s most efficient secretary and wooing a womanizer who literally slaps the hands of his prized plaything. Yes, Populaire is evoking a bygone era—and the attitudes of its movies—but there’s a fine line between retro and retrograde.