A French homage to classic American comedies with a few distinct Gallic touches (steamy foreplay, nipples visible through a rain-soaked blouse), Populaire stars dashingly snaggletoothed Romain Duris as Louis, a 1950s office man who trains his secretary, Rose (Déborah François), to be a competitive speed typer. Along the way, they fall in love/hate. Writer-director Régis Roinsard’s feature-length debut is visually sharp, with period design that’s eye-catching without being fussy or fetishistic. Too bad there’s not much going on beneath the surface. Duris, at his best when playing nasty and tormented, strains to hit some of the lighter notes here, while François (who made a strong impression in the Dardennes’ The Child) mainly widens her doe eyes and practices her pout. More disappointingly still, Roinsard makes little attempt to tweak the retro gender dynamics. The exception is a pair of vibrantly staged typing tournaments, in which the furious clack-clack-clack becomes a sort of soundtrack of pent-up female frustration with a world that encourages women to excel only in assisting men. In the case of Louis and Rose, of course, the frenzied typing and obsessive coaching are also a redirected expression of their reciprocal sexual desire. But when Louis “selflessly” pushes his protégée into the arms of a more seasoned (and lecherous) manager, what might have been a comedy about sublimation veers into predictable rom-com territory. Thankfully there’s Bérénice Bejo, slyly stealing the show as Louis’s childhood sweetheart, who takes one look at Rose and knows exactly how this story will end.
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