Populaire takes an intrinsically boring activity - typing - and makes it unusually entertaining.
A stylized charmer (* * * out of four; rated R; opening Friday in select cities), it rises above the standard romantic-comedy threshold with endearing performances, striking production design, catchy music and chic costumes.
Surely audiences have never seen as much typing in any other movie. Somehow, the story still manages to be a delight.
This handsomely mounted French film with English subtitles is set in 1958 and focuses on 21-year-old Rose (Deborah Francois), a perky country girl who longs to see the world.
For most of her life, Rose has worked in her widowed father's small store in a tiny French village. But a shopgirl's life is not for her. She spends nights hunting and pecking on the store's portable typewriter, hoping to further her ambitions and leave her dull provincial town. She eventually departs for Lisieux, a city in Normandy, determined to find a job as a secretary.
A scene of girls lined up outside an insurance agency yammering on about the glamour of secretarial work could be straight out of the late '50s-era musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The costumes and production design recall Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies.
During her brief interview, Rose begs dashing insurance man Louis (Romain Duris) for a job. He's about to shoo her off, in favor of someone with actual office experience, then he hears how fast she can type - and with just two fingers. She's hired.
As she undertakes her office tasks, Rose is lovely, cheerful and eager, but a klutz. Still, her fingers fly over the typewriter keys. Louis encourages her to compete in a typing contest and becomes her trainer.
The 30ish Louis was an avid sportsman who never made first place. He lives vicariously through Rose as she rises through the ranks in the strangely cutthroat world of competitive typing.
Director and co-writer Regis Roinsard has an obvious affection for films of the '50s and pays tribute to them in inventive and witty ways. A scene in which Louis is pacing as he "coaches" Rose to type faster is cleverly juxtaposed with one in which Marie (Bérénice Bejo) instructs Rose on the piano - a discipline Louis believes will improve Rose's digital dexterity.
Scenes at a series of competitions are impeccably staged, down to the varying pastel color palettes. Whirling shots and sharp editing inject a sense of excitement into contests that would not ordinarily seem cinematic.
Of course, Rose and Louis are falling in love, even as they act all prickly and awkward with each other. The film recalls My Fair Lady in the way Louis assumes the role of blasé teacher and Rose the wide-eyed pupil. Francois even resembles a young, blond Audrey Hepburn.
Duris and Francois give engaging performances, as do Shaun Benson as Bob, Louis's jaunty American best friend and Bejo as Bob's wife and Louis' former flame. Their affable characters offer some surprises, unlike the more predictable trajectories of Louis and Rose.
Rose and Louis' love story is skin-deep, more governed by proximity than a kindred-spirit connection. It helps that Duris and Francois make a stunning couple with an endearing chemistry. A sex scene, however, seems out of place in this innocent, sanitized time period. Every other aspect adheres meticulously to insouciant rom-com conventions of the era.
Populaire is a delightfully breezy, featherweight confection.