populaire

Perhaps when I say that this film is set in 1959, you’ll roll your eyes and anticipate a Mad Men copycat.

Or worse: a copycat of those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day fluff pieces that promised some kind of “battle of the sexes” but only wound up sexist. Could it be as bad as Down With Love (2003) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, reprising every awful sexist thing about the Day/ Hudson pairing?

The good news is that  Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is not that film. In fact, it actually undermines the sexism of that time as well as in our memory of it.

pop-9As you can already tell, Rose (Déborah François) is a secretary for Louis (Romain Duris), a small-town insurance agent. Or rather, she wants to be a secretary. Her big ticket out of her miserably provincial hometown to a slightly larger one is that she has taught herself to type, two-finger style — and she’s fast. Louis has no intention of hiring her until she flies into her typing demon mode, whips out a copy of a letter lickety split, and looks just a little bit interesting doing it.

Plenty handsome, Louis is also a teensy bit tragic: long ago his American wartime buddy won the heart of his one-time girlfriend, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, whose long neck and knowing look make her perfectly cast as a glamorous late 50s woman). And maybe there’s something else about Louis, too — a bit of thwarted competitiveness, perhaps.

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But just when you think, “Yeah, yeah, now the reluctant and slightly tragic dude just has to realize how wonderful the young blonde thing is,” the movie turns into a caper. Louis decides that Rose’s typing is so remarkable that she should enter the regional speed typing competition — and he undertakes to train her for it.

I don’t mean simply training on the typewriter, but a full regimen: jogging, piano lessons with Marie, and the slow and painful process of learning to type with all ten fingers rather than the two index finger method.

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Sure, this is froth. Training for a speed-typing contest? But what I found delightful about the film was its insistence that Rose finds this shared quest to be exhilarating, and not just because she’s so taken with Louis. Their shared pursuit becomes the basis for a far more interesting relationship than virtually anything we’ve seen from Hollywood in 2013. (It’s been a bad year.)

That’s right: this film isn’t the kind of makeover movie in which a homely heroine takes off her glasses, flips her hair out, and wins over the handsome guy. This is some other makeover movie, in which you find yourself caught up in Rose’s quest to get faster on the typewriter. And once we arrive at the speed-typing contests — for there are several — the film makes you wonder whether such spectacles really happened, as they’re kind of wonderful.

populaire-photo-5050850dc4423Without losing its full head of foam, the film doesn’t really allow you to worry whether Rose and Louis will wind up together. We know full well that this is a shameless delivery vehicle for romance. But in the meantime it proffers a skewed view of a relationship between a man and a woman during the late 50s — one in which the man needs to overcome his self-defeat and a woman needs to get a lot faster on the typewriter.

And oh! the speed-typing contests!

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Populaire won’t forge any feminist ground — after all, its raison d’être is simply to slather on some romance for those of us too weak-minded for much of anything else. But it does something interesting with gender here nevertheless such that its avoidance of all those antifeminist tropes manages to feel like a triumph.

Perhaps I protest too much. You’ll just have to watch and tell me what you think, won’t you?

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If I haven’t already made it clear on this blog, I find Romain Duris handsome, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. (His character is thereby complete.) And Déborah François is exactly perfect without ever being grating; she alternates between fierce determination, awkwardness, innocence, and talking back — such that when she arrives at the typing contest you just want to see how it’s going to turn out.

Will Populaire change your life? Absolutely not. Some of you especially cynical types might find it far too sugary. (But please, people — wait for the sex scene.) Will it divert the rest of you for an entire evening at the end of a long week? Why, yes. And thank god for that.

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Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.

The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.

Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.

In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.

Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.

I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.

But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.