Film review: Populaire - Chic Fifties romcom is just a little off key


We tend to think of the 1950s as a world steeped in black and white. But the people who lived through it didn't see themselves in quaint monochrome – they knew colour just as we do, and perhaps appreciated it more for its not being so ubiquitous.

The French romantic comedy Populaire transports us back to 1958, when society was less mobile, more straitlaced, though in its vivid colour design it looks forward to the early 1960s and the fairytale froth of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It should probably be made clear at the outset that it's also a hymn to the humble charm of the typewriter.

A debut by Regis Roinsart, the film's animated credits sequence serves notice of its sprightly tone: c'est jazz! Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is a 21-year-old who decides to break the surly bonds of provincial destiny: she won't kowtow to her widower father's plans, won't marry the local mechanic, and won't work in the village store.

Instead, she travels to Lisieux in Normandy, where a local insurance agent Louis Echard (Romain Duris) interviews her for the post of secretary. When even this narrow door of opportunity looks about to slam in her face, Rose demonstrates her one unarguable gift: she can type at a phenomenal speed. He's impressed. If she's this good with two fingers, what might she be capable of with the full complement?

Louis also senses an opportunity. He will train Rose up to compete in speed-typing contests (they actually existed) and make some money out of his employee. She quickly graduates from doing his correspondence to typing out the whole of Madame Bovary, her dainty digits flashing across the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis at his piano.

Soon she's carrying all before her at the national heats, and getting her name in magazines and papers. ("Being famous isn't a living," grumbles her estranged dad). The relationship between svengali and protégée slowly warms into something more personal, despite his patronising nickname for her ("pumpkin") and his not-quite-assured air of suavity. Their matchmaker turns out to be Marie (Bérénice Bejo), wife of Louis's best friend Bob and, alas! the woman Louis loved devotedly as a youth.

These currents of longing and regret seem ready to drag Populaire from its initial lighthearted confection towards something more intense, perhaps more sorrowful. This would chime with the casting of Romain Duris, whose talent for playing divided souls was ably demonstrated in Jacques Audiard's The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005), where he wrestled with his calling as a classical pianist and his job as a thuggish debt-collector.

There's still a slight ratty air to his handsomeness, though he's a more polished proposition here, sporting sharp- tailored suits and smoking up a storm (very Mad Men). Interestingly, the film offers glimpses of his more anguished side; as she becomes a star, he seems to shrink into the background, uncertain of his changing status. As Rose, Déborah François is also wonderfully cast, able to project both open-faced naivete and a subtly wrongfooting allure.

Consider the scene in which she's been preparing her look for the speed-typing finals in Paris. She emerges from the hotel bathroom in dress and make-up that could hardly be more reminiscent of Kim Novak in Vertigo, and Duris's half-admiring, half-stricken reaction is heightened by the shifting red and green lights from the street (desire and jealousy in queasy alternation). The music (by Rob and Emanuel d'Orlando) echoes the weeping strings of Bernard Herrmann's famous love theme.

The film has dipped its toe into dangerous waters, and one imagines the various ways it could give Vertigo's twisted romance a run for its money. Is it to be about a woman's fight for her identity? Or a study on a man's neurotic urge to control and dominate? Like Duris, François has played a conflicted pianist before, pursuing vengeance against an older woman in The Page Turner (2006), and one may discern in her gaze the possibility of something ruthless.

Maybe the father-and-son business duo (Nicolas Bedos, Feódor Atkine) sense it, too, when they adopt Rose as the face of "Populaire" typewriters in preparation for their entry into the American market. When one of her stiffest competition rivals gives her the finger, we get a sudden hint of how vulnerable Rose might be, so driven by the demons of speed that they might just unseat her nervous system altogether. It reflects a whole era obsessed with speed – cars and supersonic jets starting a race that would heat to boiling point over the next 20 years.

In the event, Populaire is a safer and cuddlier beast than one might have wished. The social constrictions against which Rose rebels in the first instance have dropped away in its latter stages; the provincial girl is no longer a plucky heroine of principle but a fawned-upon celebrity. It is not her escape from drudgery that the film truly admires, but the freakish talent in her hands.

There's a rather embarrassing coda to the story, which locates Rose's ultimate test in the partisan arena of New York. Technology itself becomes part of the story as two men hit on a new development that will revolutionise the typewriter. And the clarion call for this prototype? "America for business, France for love!" I never thought to see a French film allowing its own country to be so horribly patronised.