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Movie Review

How is it you say ‘typewriter’ in French?

Déborah François (with Romain Duris) plays a secretary who enters a speed-typing competition in “Populaire.”

Jair Sfez/Weinstein Company

Déborah François (with Romain Duris) plays a secretary who enters a speed-typing competition in “Populaire.”

As becomes quickly apparent in this oddball bonbon from first time French director Régis Roinsard, there’s a good reason why speed typing is not an Olympic event. And it’s not just because the technology is obsolete. Roinsard labors mightily to eke laughs and excitement out of ’50s secretaries in Technicolor dresses, towering heels, and awkward hairdos hammering away at keyboards, with limited success.

Similarly, he tries to resuscitate the kind of fluffy Technicolor antics that thrived back in the day of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Perhaps he’s trying to do for ’50s Hollywood romantic comedies what the Oscar-winning “The Artist” did for silent movies. But despite hard-working performances and the occasional sexual frisson from ingénue Déborah François (a kind of French Renée Zellweger) and seductive Romain Duris (who looks like Tom Hanks by way of Montgomery Clift), “Populaire” hits mostly wrong keys.

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François plays Rose Pamphyle, a spunky but rough-around-the edges kid eager to move out of her tiny hometown in the boondocks of Normandy. This being 1958, such ambitious young women have few career options, and working as a secretary seems like a dream come true. “A secretary means being modern, working with important people, having adventures!,” Rose gushes to Louis Echard (Duris), owner of a small insurance company where she has applied for a job. Observing her awkwardness (Rose’s Lucille Ball-style klutziness is a soon-tired standing joke), Echard is about to dismiss her. But when she proceeds to type out a letter at machine-gun speed — and with only two fingers! — he hires her. On one condition, though — that she start training immediately for the upcoming national speed-typing competition.

And so follows the inevitable training-for-the-big-match montage and more opportunities to exploit Rose’s coltish clumsiness and Echard’s priggish chauvinism. It’s a “Pygmalion” story — plus a little bit of “Rocky” — with typing exercises instead of lessons in elocution, and with the same long-denied but inescapable sexual attraction between non-equals. Roinsard also tosses in a variety of subplots and backstories involving Echard’s traumatic experiences as a Resistance leader during the war and his thwarted love affair with Marie (Bérénice Béjo of “The Artist,” in a barely there role), whom he has lost to cocky Yank soldier Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson), who is also his best friend. And don’t forget Echard’s churlish father, who compares him unfavorably to his successful brothers, and keeps belittling him for not snapping up the Van Gogh he found in a client’s attic. . . . In other words, Roinsard has got a whole other movie cooking on the back burner, and maybe the one he should have made.

But then he wouldn’t have had the chance to move on to the surefire hilarity of the world competition in New York, where Rose’s American opponent, with her beaky nose, cat’s-eye glasses, and alarming bouffant, looks like a Diane Arbus photo. Nor could he indulge in the kitschy period TV commercials that Rose makes for the typewriter company that sponsors her (the film’s title refers to the hot-pink model that Rose is pushing). Perhaps more important, these Hollywood touches will provide a solid starting point for the English language version that the Weinsteins no doubt have in the works.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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