Sept. 13--Comedy. Directed by Regis Roinsard. With Romain Duris, Deborah Fran ois, Berenice Bejo, Shaun Benson. In French with English subtitles. (R. 111 minutes.)
"Populaire" is an affectionate French salute to Hollywood's eye-popping, Technicolor romantic comedies of the 1950s. Is this remake really necessary? Maybe not, but to worry about that is to risk missing out on a lot of fun.
The film is all glossy colors, lightweight to the core, steering a dizzy plot through familiar turns toward a foregone conclusion. The joy is in the details -- from the animated credits to the perky pop score to the pre-"Mad Man" hair, clothes and general sensibility.
The filmmakers have saturated themselves in their American models. In its visual storytelling, the movie brings to mind works (not all of them comedies) by Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, and even some of Billy Wilder's pictures. One scene is a painstaking homage to "Vertigo." Stars like Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Rock Hudson are evoked.
The date is 1958, when becoming a secretary was a way of asserting independence for a bright young woman. Rose Pamphyle (Deborah Fran ois, with a Grace Kelly air), a 21-year-old tired of working at her father's small-town store, heads for a larger city, where she joins a long line of ambitious women aching to be hired by handsome, well-dressed Louis (Romain Duris of "The Beat That My Heart Skipped"), who runs an insurance office.
She's klutzy but a fantastic typist (albeit with two fingers, on a manual machine). Louis, an ex-athlete, is intrigued by speed-typing competitions -- an all-female activity in the world of this film -- and sees her as a potential winner of a regional contest, and perhaps beyond. Maybe the world championship in New York?
A serious training regimen is in order, so Louis has Rose move into his fancy house. He's a taskmaster who drives her to exhaustion -- which, by the rules of the genre, means romance is in the air. The same rules also require obstacles. One is Louis' continuing friendship with an old flame ("The Artist's" Berenice Bejo) who knows him better than he knows himself, and, in one of the film's few serious notes, his memories of working in the Resistance.
Director Regis Roinsard gets much comic mileage from the frequent competition scenes, rooms full of young women ack-ack-acking away at their typewriters, pausing only to slap the carriages back, while supporters cheer them on. Maybe he goes to the well once too often -- some 0f the sequences feel long. In fact, the film as a whole could use some judicious trims. There's also a sex scene that would never have gotten past the studio censors back in the day.
I like Duris' work, and he brings an edge to Louis that makes him an intriguing variation from similar characters in the originals. Fran ois is outstanding as the gamine, keeping just this side of parody. It's a treat to see Bejo, and there's nice supporting work from Shaun Benson in the classic "old buddy" role of the Bejo character's American husband.
Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com
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