LOS ANGELES — “Mad Men” meets “The Artist” in “Populaire,” a superbly crafted, finely acted but somewhat shallow retro rom-com about a young French secretary who, with the help of her highly persuasive boss, hammers her way to becoming one of the fastest typists on the planet.
This impressive debut feature from writer-director Regis Roinsard is boosted by terrific lead turns from Romain Duris and Deborah Francois (“The Page Turner”), as well as some stunning old-school cinematography from Guillaume Schiffman of “The Artist.” Still, there’s something formulaic and all too overtly crowd-pleasing about this sepia-toned tale of female empowerment and lost love, making for a rather soulless affair.
Set in the rain-swept towns of Lower Normandy in 1958, the film makes its throwback status heard loud and clear from the get-go, with opening credits (directed by Alexandre Courtes, “Asylum Blackout”) straight out of a Billy Wilder movie and decors and a color palette that would please the likes of both Alfred Hitchcock and “Mad Men’s” Matthew Weiner. Indeed, it’s easy to spend most of the movie simply gawking at the sets (by Sylvie Olive) and costumes (by Charlotte David), so Roinsard, along with co-writers Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt, deserves credit for weaving an amusing intrigue that never lets up until the closing half-hour, when his premise starts to grow old.
A quick intro presents small-town gal Rose Pamphyle (Francois, channeling the feistier side of Grace Kelly), who works at her dad’s local grocery store but longs for a better life. She thus decides to apply for a secretarial position at a neighboring insurance office run by the sleek, fast-talking Louis Echard (Duris, sharp and sprightly), who’s impressed by both her superhuman typing skills and killer looks. Before long, he takes Rose under his wing as his protegee, training her for a regional secretary competition and moving her into his country mansion, where she’s swept into a daily regimen of extreme typewriting and unrequited romance.
The bond the two form is not unlike that of Don Draper and Peggy Olson — hairstyles and smoking habits included — and Rose’s climb to a higher social status is reminiscent of Peggy’s evolution from clerk to copywriter. The difference here is that while the “Mad Men” duo ultimately transforms into a surrogate father-daughter team, the two Frenchies clearly have the hots for each other. Yet Louis is incapable of closing the deal, blocked by an enduring affection for his childhood sweetheart (Berenice Bejo) and memories of serving in the French Resistance during WWII.
While the love story is meant to fuel much of the action, it’s often overshadowed by the thrill of the training sessions and typing competitions, which Roinsard films as if they were some kind of office combat sport. Cutting between the competing secretaries as they pound out keystrokes and slam back their typewriter carriages, the director and editors Laure Gardette and Sophie Reine endow these sequences with the nail-biting suspense of a finale at Roland Garros, making them the real highlights of the movie
But for all the earnestness with which the filmmakers replicate the muted colors and attitudes of the post-war era, they ultimately fail to say anything truly interesting about either the past or the present, resulting in a work that feels as superficial as it does slick. As Louis’ expat buddy, Bob (Shaun Benson), explains at one point, “America is for business, France is for love,” and there are times when “Populaire” seems to be channeling its love of movies simply as a means to achieve Hollywood clout.
“Populaire,” a Weinstein Company release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “a scene of sexuality.” Running time: 111 minutes.