Passer le Tipp-Ex
We have reached one of those moments in the year when the multiplexes down my way, given the eternal choice between quantity and quality have opted for... well, neither, if we're completely honest. Perhaps there are a few good films showing within easy reach that aren't aimed at children: the thing is, I've seen them all already.
I did consider going further afield and had considered heading out of town (two bus-rides, a long walk and/or some hitch-hiking) to catch a promising new film about some pole-dancing vampires. (Ye Post Editor seemed inordinately excited by this news when I filled him in on my tentative plans.) But in the end I couldn't be bothered and ended up going to see Regis Roinsard's Populaire at the art-house instead.
UK listings information for Populaire, no matter what its source, uniformly announces that this film contains 'a moderate sex scene'. Well, I suppose that'll do until a really good one comes along. The other common reference point everyone is using when talking about it is Mad Men, which is just one more example of a popular and critically acclaimed TV series I've never actually seen and am not qualified to talk about (I haven't seen the one about the dwarf playing musical chairs, either). You know, I'm starting to think I should've gone with the vampire pole-dancers after all.
I suspect the Mad Men references are due to this film's 1950s setting, although most of it does take place in France. Deborah François deploys a performance packed with weapons-grade winsomeness as Rose, an innocent country girl whose life's ambition is to become a secretary. Despite being quite phenomenally clumsy and naive, she nevertheless finds a job with small-town insurance man Louis (Romain Duris). As it happens, Louis' best friend (Shaun Benson) is American, and his best friend's wife is played by Berenice Bejo from The Artist, both facts which should help with that très important commerce international.
Louis has, of course, got an ulterior motive for taking Rose on: he has discerned she has phenomenal potential as a speed typist and resolves to become her coach and train her to conquer the world, one key-stroke at a time. Needless to say the obvious chemistry going off between them cannot be allowed to get in the way of the coach-athlete relationship...
Yes, welcome back to cinema's most utterly predictable genre, for we are in the world of the rom-com. Two extremely beautiful young people meet each other, feel an instant mutual attraction, and then spend the next hour and a half acting like idiots in order to defer their climactic moment of coming together (is this a good moment to bring up that 'moderate sex scene' again? 'Moderate' is probably selling it a little short, but I digress) until the end of the film.
Some of the convolutions the plot is put through to this end are rather contrived, resulting in a film which outstays its welcome a tiny amount, but the whole film is such a frothy, feather-light confection that it almost feels churlish to criticise it on these grounds. Audiences could be excused for feeling souffled alive by a film which departs from conventional reality very early on and never really returns to it. (There are a couple of more serious character beats along the way, but these are sensibly kept understated.)
However, it is hard to overstate quite how winningly well-put-together Populaire is, with nicely judged turns from all the leads, but especially Francois: she delivers a performance of quite colossal charm and sweetness, which more than makes up for any predictability in the plot. The film also makes a real virtue of the competitive element of its story: there's something deeply, slyly funny about the way all the traditional movie cliches for depicting sporting clashes are repurposed to cover competitive typing – and yet the final scenes of Rose taking on the hissable American world champ (naturally, I will not spoil the result for you) do manage to be genuinely stirring stuff. It also manages to seem rather accessible to an international audience without being obvious or cynical about it.
The 50s setting means it all looks very stylish, too, although given the nature of the story I don't think they had a great deal of latitude there. We could, I suppose, discuss the sexual politics inherent in a story where the gender roles are quite so rigid as they are here, to say nothing of what's going on with a character as smart and strong as Rose being so determined to become a secretary. But, as I say, this is such a floaty little confection that we'd be in real butterfly-on-a-wheel territory to start criticising it in those terms. As I have had cause to ponder in another context in recent days, one can take gender politics much too seriously when it comes to escapist entertainment.
Populaire may have come up short on the pole dancing vampire front, but I did enjoy it very much; rather more, in fact, than I'd expected to. It is not deep, it is not heavy, it is never what you could honestly call surprising or unpredictable. But it is enormously likeable and entertaining, with the kind of eye-opening central performance that major careers are built on. Deborah François is surely one to watch: look out for her being wasted in a knuckle-dragging English-language genre movie somewhere near you, soon.