Movie Review: Populaire (2012)
Let him be gay. That’s what I kept thinking.
“Populaire,” a 2012 French romantic comedy that made the rounds in the “Mad Men”-crazy states this year, is an homage to those Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the late ’50s and early ‘60s, where she’s plucky, he’s unavailable, but in the end ... *smooch*.
Or so I’m told. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Doris Day movie. Via “The Celluloid Closet” I did see scenes where Hudson’s character pretends to be gay to throw her off the scent. So you have a gay man pretending to be a straight actor pretending to be a straight character who is pretending to be gay. There’s enough subtext there to crush us all.
In “Populaire,” Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François of “L’Enfant” and “Les tribulations d‘une caissière”) is a plucky girl, who, to escape her small village in Normandy in 1958, tries to get a secretary job in Lisieux at the insurance agency of the handsome Louis Échard (Romain Duris of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “L’anacoeur”). Immediately she’s made to feel second-rate by all the would-be secretaries in the waiting room with their cat’s-eye glasses and catty attitudes. Louis is ready to show her the door himself when she spins the typewriter around and begins two-fingered typing at a superfast rate. By the end, she’s flushed, her hair is down, and her bra strap is showing. It’s typing as sex. She gets the job.
Turns out she’s an awful secretary (but plucky!), while he has something else on his mind. Something extracurricular.
No, not that. He wants to enter her in the regional speed-typing competition. He even sets her up in a room in his stately mansion so she can practice more. She assumes he’ll make a play for her—doesn’t speed-typing equal sex?—but he never does. He never even seems to think it. He’s all about the competition. Of course, the less interested he seems the more interested she becomes, and, in this manner, she pouts and frets her way to the regional championship.
Let him be gay
And all the while I kept thinking that thought at the top: Let him be gay. Do something meaningful with the crushingly sad subtext of those Rock Hudson movies instead of giving in, yet again, to the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the love-hungry women in the audience. As you did back then.
Nope. The filmmakers, including writer-director Régis Roinsard, do nothing with that crushingly sad subtext. Rose and Louis even have sex before the national finals a Paris, which she wins. Then, as she becomes a celebrity, he’s squeezed out of the picture, or allows himself to be squeezed out of the picture, by the Japy Typewriter people, who are pushing their new typewriter, Populaire. Oh, and there’s the world championships in New York City against the reigning American champ, who is superior and wears cat’s-eye glasses.
So why is Louis so intent on winning these meaningless typewriter competitions? He was competitive in school, we find out. Plus during World War II he commanded a platoon of resistance fighters, all of whom died, while he ran away. It’s a story that has entirely too much weight for this lightweight thing while never answering the main question: Why is he so competitive? About typing?
As for her talent? She’s just a natural. She’s clumsy everywhere but here. Clumsiness—and the cattiness of other women—is the easy way moviemakers make female movie stars sympathetic. But Rose’s clumsiness never feels real. It always feels like movie clumsiness.
There are subplots. Louis was always in love with Marie (Bérénice Bejo, and you can’t blame him), but the war screwed up their relationship, and anyway a handsome American, Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson, Ontario), landed on her father’s barn on D-Day, and that was that. Rose’s father is taciturn and against her going to Lisieux and blah blah blah. Louis once gave away a Van Gogh, or allowed its owners to sell it and reap the fortune, for which his father blames him and blah blah blah.
But mostly it’s about them. The question for all romantic-comedies is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” So it would’ve been brilliant if the answer here was, “Well, it’s because he’s gay.” Instead, it’s because he’s just too focused on the competition, the speed-typing competition, to have sex with her.
Let me speak for all straight men here: I’ve never known a man that focused.
He totally should've been gay
I liked the montage with the multicolored fingernails, and the hands typing out of the wall. I liked the title graphics: very of-the-period. I hated that Louis showed up in New York, with his best pal Bob, right before the final round of the world championships, but I liked how, backstage, he told her that he loved her (“Je t’aime”), and how this was translated into all the different ways to say “I love you” by the international crew of speed-typists backstage, all looking dreamy-eyed and swoony. That was cute.
Otherwise, “Populaire” is painful to watch. Patricia and I kept going, “There’s another hour of this?” “There’s another 40 minutes of this?” Time slowed down like it was the last class on the last day before summer vacation, and we just wanted to be free.
Plus he totally should’ve been gay.