“Populaire” is a romantic farce made in France, but it unashamedly has one eye on American audiences. Even the token North American cast member Shaun Benson can’t help but comment as the action moves from Paris to New York that it’s “America for business and France for love.”
Back in the nineties, Working Title set the model for European romcoms utilizing American characters or locations in an attempt to ensure traction in the U.S. market. Where previously it was thought that the language barrier would stop other European countries from following suit, the recent success of “The Artist” and “The Intouchables” (both released, as “Populaire” will be in the coming months, by The Weinstein Company) has added garnish to the French appetite to get in on some of the action. The characters even upon occasion jump from speaking French to English.
The story, set in 1958, owes much of its humor and social commentary on the changing face of gender relationships to “Mad Men,” while the breezy tone is a nod to American television series such as “I Love Lucy.”
Deborah Francois plays Rose Pamphyle, the daughter of a small village grocer who dreams of becoming a secretary, as anything would be a step up from marrying the local mechanic and becoming a housewife. She applies for a job in Lisieux, Normandy to work at the insurance firm Échard and Sons.
The company is run by one of those sons, confirmed bachelor Louis Échard, played with a permanent scowl by the dashing French actor Romain Duris. Duris himself seems to have one eye on Hollywood these days. He built his reputation playing edgy heartthrobs in art-house hits such as Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat that My Heart Skipped” (itself a remake of James Toback’s “Fingers”) and Christian Honoré’s “Dans Paris,” but recently has been appealing to international audiences by appearing as the leading man in romcoms such as Pascal Chaumeil’s 2010 hit “Heartbreaker,” which spent half its running time referencing “Dirty Dancing.”
The failure of Échard to commit has already cost him dearly. His closest friend, Marie (“The Artist” star Bérénice Bejo), is the one that got away — and she’s now married to a super nice ex-American WWII soldier Bob Taylor (Benson). They have two children and a seemingly perfect life.
Yet it’s the modern-looking singletons that the audiences will be rooting to go down the traditional route. Louis employs Rose, despite her inexperience, because she has an ace up her sleeve: She can type faster than Hunter S. Thompson on speed. Naturally, Louis hits on the idea of entering Rose into typing competitions. Initially handicapped by using only her index finger to smash the keys, Louis encourages her to learn how to type and takes it upon himself to become her coach. He gets her to practice and learn about writing styles by copying out books such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
The big surprise is that the typing competitions actually prove quite an entertaining watch. The costumes the girls are wearing are uniformly fabulous as are the sharp suits donned by Louis. However, it does get a bit tedious and predictable when the girls at the world typing championships are all designed to fit national stereotypes: the Korean child prodigy, tick, the English Rose, tick, and the highly-strung German, tick. Nonetheless, those with a penchant for vintage clothes and kitsch tastes will be mesmerized.
The problem, as with most romantic comedies, is that there are no shocks in the story. When Rose starts winning competitions, it creates a rift in the romance. The twist is that all the perceived problems are mostly just in the mind of Louis. His family, friends and customers all realize that Rose is the girl for him. And of course the formulaic script has him losing her before winning him back. Duris still struggles with comedy and is guilty of trying too hard to play for laughs. Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company picked up U.S. rights to “Populaire” earlier this year and currently has plans for a 2013 release. With a great cast and sufficient laughs, “Populaire” could find international audiences, but it’s no “Amelie.” The orthodox script will not broaden appeal outside the dedicated romcom market and the language barrier may also be a problem for some. Its crowdpleasing qualities suggest Weinstein may try to position the film for next year’s Oscar season.