The Weinstein Company secured the U.S. distribution rights to “Populaire,” the ’50s-set French rom-com that premiered Out of Competition at the Rome Film Festival, back in March, and it’s easy to see why. Boasting a chic, stylized period setting, dotted with bubblegum colors, sharp tailoring and lacquered updos, the film is the kind of undemanding confection that should prove a straightforward transatlantic sell, while its insouciant French-ness adds that bit of class that perhaps its nearest recent U.S. equivalent, “Down With Love,” lacked. But while comparisons with the megasuccessful “The Artist” are inevitable (and it even boasts that film’s star, Berenice Bejo, in a supporting role), “Populaire” lacks a few of the vital elements that goosed its French predecessor all the way up to the Oscar podium: an Academy-friendly inside-baseball industry feel, and more importantly, a narrative that unfolds with anything but complete, pristine predictability. It’s not like “The Artist” was gritty, but “Populaire” is so cotton-candy breezy it makes the Best Picture-winner look like “The Panic in Needle Park.”
Set in the apparently fiercely competitive world of 1950s typing contests, the winners of which become megastars complete with weeping fans and lucrative endorsement deals, “Populaire” details the rise and rise of Rose Pamphyle (Deborah Francois), a naïve but spunky village girl with naught but her prodigious talent for typing to help her achieve her dream of being “modern.” Her raw skill is uncovered by her first employer, insurance man Louis (Romain Duris), himself a veteran of the Resistance and a perennial second-place sportsman. He co-opts her into a platonic arrangement whereby he becomes her coach, she “trains” night and day like an athlete, and he gets (we presume) to vicariously live out his dreams of being number one through her. But crikey! They fall in love and then a load of manufactured romantic comedy nonsense keeps them from being together until it doesn’t and the film ends.
And now we feel mean. This movie is too amiable to be overly cutting about, unless you enjoy kicking puppies, and if it’s overlong, its sheer affability means it never feels like it has wholly overstayed its welcome. Still, with the plot as threadbare as it is, there’s really no need for the running time, and those of us with a working knowledge of the rhythms and beats of the romantic comedy formula may feel like the will they/won’t they cycle plays out once to often before the inevitable “they will.” But our bigger narrative issue is simply this: once Rose’s initial failure to qualify in the very first contest is over, it’s nothing but meteoric rise from there on throughout successive competitions — and there are a few of them. They’re nattily rendered, the clacking of varnished nails on keys, the swishing of paper and the dinging of carriage returns all form a pleasantly percussive backdrop to what should be increasing stakes. But here, those stakes are not clearly enough drawn, and the way in which her competitive life and romantic life interrelate is not made easily understandable. Shouldn’t there be some bumps along the road to eventual bliss, that our girl needs to overcome in order to learn something about herself? Here, Rose simply has to wait for Louis to come to his senses and get on the inevitable plane, all the while eviscerating the competition.
And so, though it’s attractively played — Francois all perky klutziness, Duris bringing a certain hauntedness to an otherwise frothy part — the final clinch feels, not unearned exactly, but hardly worth the hoops we had to jump throughout to get here. Especially considering we had just watched these two get it on minutes previously. And if there’s any reason other than wilful Frenchness that Roinsard shoehorns in that completely ill-judged sex scene, we’d love to know what it is. It’s a silly, jarring moment of writhing limbs lit by neon, that sticks out sorely among the prim ponytails and eyelash batting elsewhere. The film so adores the kind of Rock Hudson/Doris Day aesthetic, that it really would have been more in keeping to have simply cut to the rumpled bedclothes or some such, in the more prudish way of the time.
That sole scene aside, the film is determined to charm you, and probably now with the might of Weinstein behind it, you are going to be powerless to resist. They are, after all, not exactly unversed in how to market meticulously rendered period films with slight stories – just see “The King’s Speech,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Artist.” Oh, you already have. “Populaire” deserves similar treatment for the cuteness of its visuals and its total desire to please, but we do feel that, with its overall sugariness, along with GASP subtitles, it won’t manage to quite replicate that level of critical or commercial success. [B]