The idea of taking an obscure sporting or competitive event as the backdrop for a comedy has been milked to death in recent comedies. We've seen figure-skating in 'Blades of Glory', ping-pong in 'Balls of Fury', and dodgeball in, well, 'Dodgeball'. None of those movies worked for one very simple reason; they revolved around one joke and died stretching it out to feature length. With this knowledge, I expected little from Roinsard's debut feature. Thankfully, he's used the concept of speed-typing as no more than a "MacGuffin". It's simply the backdrop to what is, essentially, a homage to the technicolor world of fifties Hollywood.
France never had this sort of cinema back then and there's a sense that Roinsard is trying to rectify this. The film is awash with references to that golden age of entertainment, from the primary colors of MGM musicals to a Saul Bass influenced credit sequence. There's even a 'Vertigo' homage which, unlike last year's 'The Artist', pays respect in the correct manner. Duris and Francois are playing the sort of roles Rock Hudson and Doris Day would have taken over half a century ago. Due to its fifties setting, accusations of male chauvinism may be leveled but, thankfully, Roinsard makes no concessions to modern sensibilities, (unlike Spielberg's 'Lincoln'). His film bears no resemblance to reality, instead it's set in the world of the cinema. In real-life, Normandy is a drab, grey region, lacking the brightness and color on display here. This is what movies of this nature do, they transport you from the humdrum of reality into a world where something as simple as a room of frantically typing secretaries can explode with the energy of a Busby Berkeley dance number. In French, the word "entertainment" literally translates as "diversion" and, as diversions go, 'Populaire' is one this year's best.
C'est le divertissement!
The biggest surprise with the film is the actual competitions between Rose and her combatants. I know this might sound outlandish but hear me out. When you're typing on a keyboard, that's quite boring and we've seen it spiced up in some techno-thrillers with zippy computer simulations but it never really works. Imagine however, typing on a keyboard where there is no way to erase mistakes. You're racing against the clock, trying to reach speeds of 500 characters per minute. On top of that, you have to manually load and unload the paper you're typing onto, manually switch the machine to type on a new line and there's that constant fear that the keys are going to get stuck. Now that is something far removed from the simple clicking of a couple of keys as words appear on your monitor; this is the furious clicking and clanking as these then-revolutionary machine stamp teeny letters onto a ribbon so hard that it then imprints itself onto the paper. There's real tension in the competitions because you see this whole room full of women, furiously typing and trying to get through their text without making a single mistake (each of which costs you a whopping 100 characters on your score). Everyone is in the same league, so their paces are pretty much the same. All of a sudden though, you'll start to see the lineup forming as the contestants start to reach the end of the first line. There's that "ding" that sounds as she nears the end of the sheet of paper and she lifts up her left hand, gives the machine a smack and it's off to the next line. Everyone else soon follows but by glance you can start to see that some people are falling behind and when they finally reach the end of the page, it's a whole other story as the ladies furious rip the paper out from the machine and scramble to stick the next one in. There are multiple scenes like this and all of them actually feature our leading lady Déborah doing her own typing. Now that is exciting.
Away from the machines, there's a very genuine romantic story developing between Rose and her boss Échard. The actors have great chemistry and some pretty good comedic timing too. You really start to care about the competition (even before the gripping sequences) because you want these two succeed. There's also something really relatable about Rose's humble beginning because we've all been there, struggling to learn how to type properly when it would be so much easier to just look down at the keyboard and poke at the letters instead of having to come up with all of these tricks to memorize which fingers go where and where all the keys are. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Échard and Rose colour-code her fingers and the keys on her machine so that she can easily remember which fingers go where. That's really clever. I can't speak for the English dub or subtitles that will come when the movie hits North American theatres but the French audio was snappy and funny while keeping the mood light. There's some good slapstick, just the right dose that brings some extra laughs in there too. The mood stays light, the sparks fly and there are some genuinely sexy moments too. The main characters are likable and the side characters enrich the story (Bérénice Bejo is a particular standout as an ex of Échard, a friend and tutor to Rose and a matchmaker to both).
I'm urging you to go see a movie that sounds like it would be ridiculous but really charmed me. This is no blockbuster and it isn't going to be a sweeping romance either but not all movies need to be big. It's very enjoyable and will leave you feeling light and cheerful; it'll make your day. (Theatrical version on the big screen, September 21, 2013)