Monday, September 16, 2013

Movie Review: Populaire

Directed by Régis Roinsard. 2012.

If Populaire were only a riff on Pygmalion it might be a little banal. If it were only an imitation of the sugary Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies, it'd be silly. If it were simply fashioned in the mold of competition movies where it all comes down to the last moment of the game, then it'd be formulaic. Instead, though, Populaire unifies and elevates these too familiar features into a sweet little package.

The chief success, as you may guess, is not the plot. It will do no good to explain that plucky little Rose Pamphyle moves from her small French town into the big city after landing a job as secretary to insurance agent Louis. It says a little more that Rose, thanks to her father's typewriter and a cheery knack, types at phenomenal speed. Finally, if you can't guess by now that her boss Louis trains her to win a typing competition and in the process falls for her, then I can't help you. It's the style, though, that pulls these elements together.

First, everyone plays the movie straight. No one questions the usefulness of Rose's skill or the importance of the competition. The film doesn't edge into satire and remains faithful to its playful tone and focus on the main characters' special relationship. They believe it, so we do.

Second, the movie keeps a lid on the talking. Instead of suffering through chatty dialogue and the bubblegummy air-headedness we might expect from its Hudson-Day roots, or the filler and too-clever wit of My Fair Lady, director Régis Roinsard tells a great deal of Populaire through visuals. Glances, scowls, peeks, smirks, and no shortage of musical montages keep the film light and moving.

Third, the color palette is soft and bright, from Rose's dresses and, well, rosy hue, to the opulent interior of Louis' house to the golden glitz of the world competition. The one exception to this is a surprisingly erotic scene which owes its additional burst of ardor to a monochromatic twist. Another effective scene is easy to overlook since it's just one of the local typing competitions. It is in fact well composed with rows of typists in the center of a gymnasium and the crowds around. Everywhere a pleasing distribution of colors, mostly in the form of clothes, makes an otherwise still and sedentary scene subtly pop as the camera bobs between the center and perimeter. Simple and effective.

Fourth, Populaire keeps things subtle. Rose's father is a widower and a grouch but not monstrous. Nor does he conveniently disappear from the plot or storm back into it to fix or ruin anything. Instead, he recedes into the background and stays there, returning in a low-key, unintrusive way. In another scene, after Rose has moved in with Louis to train more efficiently, Louis stumbles upon one of Rose's misplaced unmentionables. This takes a briefly comedic turn as Louis attempts to return the apparel, but after he's inevitably caught, does Rose fly into a rage, setting up a momentous shift? On the contrary, it becomes sweet moment where the two accidentally reveal something about themselves. Another scene, in which the two must feign their engagement for Louis' family, functions much the same and as well.

Finally, the movie works with or without its fourth act, which does drag on a bit. Populaire was in the rare position where both characters could have gone on happily apart and true to their characters without making for an unhappy ending. Instead, the fourth act brings them to a not-so-inevitable place, although that's hard to begrudge.

It's far too easy to overlook how much attention went into maintaining Populaire's delicate whimsy: not overplaying the sight gags, sketching in just the right amount of history for Louis' romantic reservation, and keeping Rose's preposterous training amusing and not tyrannical. There's affection here in the details of both the direction and the script: cheeky glances, insecure posturing, a little forced encouragement from an old flame. Populaire is a charming, cheerful movie of subtle taste and air which you would be most fortunate to see with someone much like it.

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