Populaire and Post-Sincere

Start with Secretary, that wonderfully bizarre 2002 film in which Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader explore all the sadomasochistic possibilities of the secretary/boss relationship. Tone down (way down) the bondage and self-mutilation, and make the female lead a little more like Audrey Hepburn. But blonde. Throw in some slick Mad Men 1950’s styling, but camp it up a bit so it looks more like Hair Spray. Add a Revolutionary Road dash of this-American-dream-thing-ain’t-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be skepticism. Not too much. And put the whole thing in France, just to be safe.

Still with me? Good. Now, mix that together with any (or rather, all) of the underdog-coached-to-become-champion movies. Rocky? Sure, but think more Karate Kid, Cool Runnings, Cutting Edge, Bring It On, etc. (Here’s a helpful montage). Now nudge the coach/athlete dyad slightly in the direction of My Fair Lady, and make it a musical.

Too much? Ok, let’s keep just one musical number, and ditch all of the bondage. Great.

What you’ve got now is Populaire, a magical French movie directed by Regis Roinsard. The film, starring Deborah Francois, Romain Duris, and Berenice Bejo, came out last year and was playing this week as part of the 3rd Annual Chicago French Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre.

The plot is ridiculous, in an endearing sort of way. A country girl, Rose, leaves her provincial home with dreams of becoming a “modern girl” — in other words, a secretary. She’s a hopeless klutz and not at all good at anything but typing. No, really: writing down a date in a calendar while speaking on the telephone proves too complicated. If you allow yourself to be enchanted by the film, you will  suspend your disbelief regarding this grown woman’s truly extraordinary level of incompetence and find this all very charming. This is the strategy adopted by her boss, who decides to keep her around and train her to be a world-class competitive speed typist. Because, you know, why not? Rose thinks this all might be kind of creepy, but decides it's better than going back to her village.

The film provides no shortage of scenes of women typing furiously and exchanging menacing glares through cat eye glasses, each woman maintaining era-appropriate feminine composure as chain-smoking men cheer them on from the bleachers and place bets on the outcome. Again, this is charming if you decide to read it as charming; otherwise, kinda weird and cockfighty.

As typewriters roar, we in the audience have plenty of time to consider the not particularly perplexing question of whether the boss and his secretary will get together. Sometimes this is fun and cute and quirky. Sometimes things get a little muddled (Wait, that fight was about what, exactly? And what’s up with that ex-girlfriend?). Sometimes the relationship between secretary and boss comes across as romantic, sometimes as nothing but sugar-coated Stockholm syndrome (see: Beauty and the Beast). So let’s just say the film is not without its faults, among them some really questionable gender politics. (Critical commentary? Nostalgic redeployment? Both?) And yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss this film, as one reviewer for the Guardian did, as just a “sugary French romcom” that is “all too obviously being sold on the Mad Men ticket.” And here’s why: it’s about typing.

The thing Populaire does so right is playfully appropriate all the genre conventions of the make-‘em-a-champion training film in a way that renders those conventions obvious and absurd even while relying on them to provide the structure of the film. When the training is for a typing competition, of all things, it is impossible not to feel like we’re in on the joke. Unlike the more earnest films of the genre, where the training culminates in a breathtaking display of karate/figure skating/cheerleading/whatever, the suspenseful scenes here areladies at their typewriters. While the lead actress reportedly trained for months to be able to type so efficiently on screen, the result is just typing. The sound is intense, almost thrilling, but always unmistakably clunky. The movements swift but, you know, still just typing. And when those pre-digital digits become world famous—when we’re watching a modern girl become a move-star-caliber celebrity for nothing more nor less than her keyboarding skills, the hollowness at the center of the genre is put proudly on display, worn like a badge of honor. We’re asked to simultaneously laugh at and trust in this worn-out narrative structure, and this is what allows us to feel good about our hip ironic distance from what’s going on at the same time that we delight in an ultimately silly and saccharine love story. This isn’t easy to pull off, but Populare does it, giving us an in-quotes “fun movie” that’s clever enough for a post-sincerity audience to enjoy. And anyway, it’s French, so it couldn’t possibly be just another vapid romantic comedy, right?