It’s “My Fair Lady” meets “Flashdance” meets the sweet, earnest rom-coms of the 1950s. “Populaire” is the feature debut by French filmmaker Régis Roinsard (most famed for Jane Birkin’s promotional videos) but the film has the look and feel of a veteran artisan: “Some Like it Hot” director Billy Wilder, to be exact.
Roinsard was inspired to make “Populaire” after watching an old 1950s newsreel about a speed-typing contest. That inspiration comprises 80 percent of the story: Set in Lisieux, France, in the late 1950s, “Populaire” is the tale of a girl who strives to be special, by poising her fingers over a typewriter keyboard and banging out 516 strokes a minute.
Roinsard depicts with loving detail an era that glamorized the office secretary, practically the only job available to girls seeking a career and independence. Rose (Déborah François) is one such girl, desperate to escape life with her grouchy widower dad who runs the village haberdashery and plans to marry her off to the local dentist.
Rose packs a suitcase and takes the bus to Lisieux, falling in line behind a bevy of other young women waiting to be interviewed by debonair insurance-company president Louis Echard (Romain Duris). Louis hires Rose, but on condition that she win the regional speed-typing competition.
“Populaire” is gently feminist, balancing a young woman’s hankering for work and independence with her desire for love and romance. Rose isn’t a raging beauty, nor is she a particularly competent secretary; when Louis says her only asset is the ability to type like a demon, he’s not kidding. Still, he doesn’t bargain on that asset attaining an irresistible allure; as he coaches and preps his protégé on her way to victory at the national finals, he finds himself falling for Rose. She, for her part, has been in love with her boss from day one, and the struggle that ensues echoes Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in Wilder’s 1954 classic “Sabrina.”
François’ three-month regimen of speed-type training pays off — “Populaire” presents typing as a spectator sport, and the typists as athletes with the most well-toned forearms and fingers in the world. Louis treats Rose accordingly, making her jog early in the mornings, setting up an incredibly tight training schedule, giving pep talks and generally channeling Rocky Balboa’s coach, Mickey. When he presents her with a cake on her birthday, he urges her to blow out the candles in one go, and remarks that her lungs are in great shape: “The jogging did you good!”
Rose can’t help feeling miffed. On the one hand, she wants to be the world’s fastest typist and secure a future as a professional woman. On the other, she wishes to be cherished, like Louis’ childhood love Marie (Bérénice Bejo), now happily married to American ex-G.I. Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson), who landed in Normandy at the end of the war and never left.
Rose’s dilemma is as familiar as feminism itself, but drawn like this, with the endearing secretary appearing in an array of adorable circular skirts and heels, you can’t help but feel (a tiny bit) that there’s something to be said for gender inequality. At least we now get to skip the shoulder pads.