When I was about thirteen, I went through the most severe obsession phase of my life thus far – Audrey Hepburn. After watching My Fair Lady on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, I binged Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and countless others until I landed on what remains my favourite Hepburn film, and what was to be my favourite film for the next few years – Funny Face. A 1957 Gershwin musical starring Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson (the author of the Eloise childrens’ books), it’s a Pygmalion-esque story of a magazine photographer who transforms an intellectual bookshop clerk into a glamorous fashion model. (It’s as quietly sexist as it sounds, but I digress.) Even now, each of the films that I watched religiously during this phase of my teenage years bring me a unique sense of comfort unlike almost anything else.
I’m recounting this portion of my life for you as Populaire bears more similarities to my favourite classic Technicolour musical than anything else I’ve seen in cinemas in recent years; while lacking the musical element, it’s a delightfully giddy, rose-tinted trip through a bygone era that you will surely find enjoyable if you have a nostalgic predisposition for the kinds of films we just don’t see all that often anymore.
Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) lives in a small town, working at her widowed father’s grocery shop and destined to marry the local mechanic’s son. Yearning to get out of her seemingly preordained life, she sets off for the big city and lands a job as a secretary for insurance man Louis Échard (Romain Duris), due to her extremely unorthodox typing skill. Échard vows to make her the greatest typist the world has ever seen, and what follows is a predictable but utterly delightful trip through the world of competitive speed typing.
The unrelenting, bubbly energy present in Populaire from its very first frame is owed almost completely to leading lady Déborah François. Bearing a doe-eyed resemblance to Audrey Hepburn herself, François is a delight throughout the proceedings. Romain Duris does a serviceable Cary Grant impression, and Bérénice Bejo and Shaun Benson deliver entertaining supporting turns. It’s drenched in delicious candy colours and the music is effortlessly nostalgic; it’s indebted to old Hollywood cinema despite its French language, and it’s clear from the film’s closing sequence that the filmmakers were counting on an English speaking audience. You know exactly where the love story is headed from the moment Rose steps into Louis’ office, but Rose’s agency in resisting the life that was previously set out for her succeeds where Funny Face does not as a woman’s story.
Populaire probably isn’t a great film. Honestly, I couldn’t objectively point out any faults it may have if I tried. It’s a piece of familiar bliss that won me over from its very first shot of a girl and a coloured typewriter, and I adored it.