Film review: Populaire - You need more than 140 words per minute to write a decent script

 

The publicity for Populaire is selling it as "Mad Men meets The Artist", and you can see where it's coming from. Brylcreem, sharp suits and cigarettes by the truckload? Check. Feelgood French tribute to the cinema of a bygone era? Check. But it would be just as appropriate to compare Populaire to every film ever made about somebody competing in a contest, from The Karate Kid to Pitch Perfect.

The person competing is Déborah François, the pretty but clumsy new secretary in a small Normandy insurance office. Her eligible boss, Roman Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) immediately notices that she's a demon at the typewriter – this is 1958 – and so he signs her up for a speed-typing tournament. Cue the training montages and the progress through the regional heats and the ... well, I'm not giving too much away when I say that François makes it to the finals, am I? And I'm not spoiling anything when I reveal that she and her boss have a more-than-professional relationship?

The fact that she's clacking away at a manual typewriter has a certain novelty value, and in general Populaire is as sweet, frothy, and pastel-coloured as a milkshake. But it never convinces us that the competition really matters. There's no major conflict or wider resonance connected to the secretary's rise, so Régis Roinsard's nostalgic comedy soon feels like a single, mildly diverting joke stretched over a whole film. Ultimately, is isn't clear why the story is worth telling, and that's not something anyone ever said about Mad Men or The Artist.

Speaking of films with iffy conceits, The Purge (James DeMonaco, 90 mins, 15 ***) posits that within a decade, America will have solved all of its economic and social problems by instituting an annual 12-hour window wherein all crime is legalised. Apparently, this will let people get their basest impulses out of their system, as well as weeding out the have-nots who can't afford the latest weaponry and burglar alarms.

It is, of course, tosh. But if you can locate a crane that's big enough to suspend your disbelief, then The Purge is horribly enjoyable. It's a home invasion thriller with a twist – make that several twists – and a satirical tang redolent of mid-Seventies sci-fi offerings such as The Stepford Wives and Rollerball.

Ethan Hawke is excellent as a complacent businessman who has earned enough to buy a mansion in a gated community by selling – get ready for the irony – security systems. When he locks down the shutters on the night of the titular purge, he assumes his wife (Lena Headey) and children will be safe. But then his son spots a wounded man in the street outside, begging for sanctuary. It's time for some chin-stroking moral debate about violence and class. And, while we're about it, it's time for some fight scenes and shoot-outs that could well propel you several inches above your seat.

Critic's Choice

Olivier Assayas remembers the days of tie-dyes and militancy in his early-Seventies memoir Something In The Air. And Japanese anime revisits the Second World War in the harrowing 1988 Studio Ghibli classic Grave of the Fireflies, now re-released.

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