Devotees of '50s Hollywood comedies could have a great time at Populaire, an intentionally lightweight ode to romance and, uh, typing. But the way to enjoy this French souffle is to concentrate on the scrupulously retro music, costumes and set design, not on the musty fairy-tale script.
The movie's ugly duckling is Rose (Deborah Francois), who's actually quite pretty, but limited by her klutziness and small-town origins. It's 1958 when she moves from a tiny Norman hamlet to a somewhat bigger one, fleeing her bossy father and the garage-mechanic fiance dad has picked out for her. (The mechanic has a tiny role, but he's unmistakably a nod to Jacques Demy's candy-colored '60s classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.)
Rose seeks the ideal modern job for a postwar gal: secretary. Insurance agent Louis (Romain Duris) is unimpressed when she appears at his office among a dozen job seekers, and he's about to send her away when he notices her speed as a typist. The rapid clickety-clacks awaken his competitive spirit, dormant since he left schoolboy athletics to join the French Resistance.
Eager for a job, and determined not to return home, Rose agrees to become a competitive typist. The duo's campaign to reach the national championship is slowed by Rose's two-finger mode. Touch-typing lessons will be required, and director Regis Roinsard will struggle mightily to make them interesting.
Other complications come via Louis' American friend Bob (Shaun Benson), who landed in Normandy on D-Day and never left, and via Bob's wife Marie, who turns out to be Louis' ex. (She's played by Berenice Bejo, star of The Artist, another recent French exercise in cinematic antiquarianism.)
Marie recognizes that Rose and Louis are secretly in love, and unsubtly pushes them together. Bob, whose appalling pronunciation is meant to get French audiences giggling, is very competitive with Louis and embodies France's love-hate relationship with American swagger and commerce.
As potential victory looms, Rose is hired by a French manufacturer to advertise its new pink typewriter, the Populaire. Louis, formerly suave to the point of imperiousness, begins to think Rose has outgrown him. But she, of course, can think of nothing grander than being his wife.
A first-time director, Roinsard has confessed that he wanted to make a sports movie but couldn't think of any pastime that hadn't been overexposed on film. That explains why he's photographed and edited his key-punching competitions so aggressively, and why Louis' training regimen for Rose includes activities more suited to boxers than typists.
When he's not emulating Rocky, the director pays homage to many midcentury filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Vincente Minnelli. There's lots of period music, and Rob and Emmanuel d'Orlando's score echoes the spun-sugar style of such composers as Michel Legrand. Indeed, a Christmas scene in which Rose, Louis and his family break into song (and a dance) suggests that the whole movie might have worked better as a musical.
As Rose, Francois channels Doris Day and Grace Kelly, with a dash of Marilyn Monroe. (There's an out-of-character moment when Rose finds Louis with one of her bras and announces that she's wearing the matching panties.) She's believable as an ingenue, although it's been eight years since she made her film debut in the Dardennes brothers' L'Enfant.
The ever-edgy Duris has appeared before in comedies, notably L'Auberge Espagnole, but he never quite settles into this one. While Populaire would still have suffered from being overlong and overfamiliar, a smoother leading man could have done much to boost the intended Cary Grant vibe.