Written by Régis Roinsard and Daniel Presley
Directed by Régis Roinsard
The products, habits and social norms which define the ever shifting ‘present’ are constantly in flux. What is deemed to be modern may, in only a short few years, be scoffed at for being past its prime, or worse still, antiquated. Probably in no facet of human life is this more apparent than in the gradual morphing of how humans from different races, religious background and even sexes treat one another. It was not so long ago that the relegation of woman to house chores or the lowest levels of employment in the work force was the regular practice. There remains work to be done in that respect, but suffice to say that things have evolved considerably since the 1950s. Making a film in said decade that explicitly deals with this notion of the woman’s place in the workforce and what, under the circumstances, a woman can and should aspire to is a therefore a tricky proposition. French writer-director Régis Roinsard thought it an interesting challenge, although the results leave much to be desired.
In Populaire, a young country girl named Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) earns herself a secretarial job in a small finance business run by the charming, handsome if very severe Louis (Romain Duris). What Rose lacks in tact, she more than makes up for with her desire to perform her duties as best she can. Nevertheless, as the audience soon learns, that is never enough for Louis, who constantly demands she Rose better herself. He therefore places her in a nation wide speed typewriting contest, training her mercilessly so she can be the fastest typist in France and, provided he gets his way, the world!
Of course, there is more to the film than just that storyline, as Populaire tries desperately to pay homage to the comedies of yesteryear with some poppy sounding musical cues and some very vintage and admittedly impressive set decor harkening back to the styles present in the late 1950s. Fair is fair, and it should be noted that some of the visual touches the filmmakers pull off to immerse the viewers into the period are hard to overlook or shun. There is one shot in particular in which Louis and Rose are driving around Paris none too far from the Eiffel Tower and every single car passing by is vintage from the 50s. Whether the filmmakers received special permission to block off one of Paris’ most important streets (in daytime, no less) or if there is some green screen magic operating, is hard to say. Regardless, the attention paid to the aesthetics of the period is to be applauded. The principle cast is also surprisingly dedicated to the material. Romain Duris has for some years already proven himself one of France’s finest actors, visibly having some fun in Populaire as the stuffy boss who cannot let go of his passion for winning, even at the cost of losing love. Déborah François is herself quite charming at times, injecting some vim and verve to her clumsy Rose.
Despite all that, it feels as though Populaire would be a very tough sell for audiences, be they French or from any other country where the condition of woman, from their roles as wives, mothers and employees, has greatly evolved over the past 5 decades. Roinsard, in telling this story the way he does, firmly plants his film between a rock and a hard place. Every now and then a movie comes along set some time ago when the ethics and societal norms differed and some characters in said movie light the spark beginning the update of those practices to something more akin to what modern audiences are accustomed to (last year’s Hysteria being just one example). Interestingly enough, Populaire does not tread that territory. Rather, it borrows the road less taken, offering virtually no commentary whatsoever on the normality, so to speak, of women, among them the protagonist Rose, believing that being a man’s secretary is the most rewarding, gratifying thing one can aspire to be. On the one hand, that can be applauded, seeing as the filmmakers deliberately chose not to throw the audience a bone with something they can latch onto. However, that ends up leaving the movie and its characters that much more to difficult to grasp. Is the film, specifically by not offering any explicit commentary or overtly poking fun at the ‘backwards’ thinking of these people, actually doing so in the process? Because it presents these events on face value, is the audience to find them amusing or make up their own commentary concerning such antiquated philosophies? Perhaps, although without any hints from the director, it is hard to tell. No one should arrive at the conclusion that Régis Roinsard actually believes that the mindset of the men and women from this period was a brilliant example of how a modern society must conduct itself, yet there is something frustratingly inaccessible about his picture. One wonders if this is the sort of film that is supposed to make modern audiences feel good about themselves by showcasing how less evolved the equality of the sexes was back in the day. Perhaps that was the filmmakers intention all along: personal emotional reassurance through harmless mockery?
It does not help either that the comedy is off the mark. Populaire attempts to portray, for lack of a better term, a ‘cute’ vision of this period, with series of pivotal moments that seem to want to produce ‘aw, shucks’ reactions from the audience, yet the story is so silly, so hard to invest one’s self in despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, few if any of the jokes are ever very funny. Going back to the aforementioned poppy, happy musical cues, the score intends to give the overall impression that Populaire is a simple, happy-go-lucky comedy. The issue yet again being that none of that jives well with the decidedly off putting nature of the story being told. In essence, Populaire is so in love with its tone that it would have been a good film had it been made and released in the late 1950s. The problem is this is 2013.