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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Here’s what I like about this movie:  it’s funny; Emma Stone makes an adorable, smart, eminently watchable star; and it sneaks in a literary tie-in to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (what can I say? I’m a geek).  About a year from now when it appears in heavy rotation on Sunday afternoon cable TV, I’ll watch it and laugh all over again.  But don’t get me wrong:  this is not a great high school sex comedy in the vein of “Clueless” or “Say Anything” — it just doesn’t quite hold together, especially after about the midway point.  Watching it made me realize two things about this genre:  that these films rely on perversity to explain the absurdity of high school, but that viewers’ credulity can only be stretched so far.  

Oh, it starts so well.  Olive (Stone) is smart, overachieving, and pretty, but invisible in her Ojai, CA high school.  Smart in a good way, that is:  when her English class is assigned The Scarlet Letter, she rants to us that all her peers have rented the Demi Moore adaptation — which, she explains, isn’t just unfaithful to the book but a bad movie, especially compared with the original film, a 1926 silent with Lillian Gish.  (You see how much this was working for me?)  But this isn’t a geekfest, it’s a sex comedy:  she then proceeds to tell us, both to her webcam and in a series of flashbacks, how everything changed.

One day in the girls’ bathroom, Olive finds herself making up an elaborate tale about having sex with a college guy rather than admit she just didn’t want to go camping with her best friend, Rhiannon, and her nudist parents.  It convinces Rhi, but is overheard by the school’s sanctimonious queen of the super-Christians (Amanda Bynes) — and soon the word is out, as the camera pans to find everyone on campus whispering and texting furiously.  First misstep:  who ever heard of a high school where no one is having sex, much less in Ojai, CA?

But for the moment I suspended disbelief because this is where high school sex comedies invariably take us:  they explain for us the perverse and surreal internal logic of its cliques, unspoken rules, hopeless crushes, humiliations.  Whether it’s John Cusack trying to kill himself over and over in “Better Off Dead” (1985) or Winona Ryder hooking up with a Jack Nicholson-esque Christian Slater to kill their high school’s douchebags in “Heathers” (1989), these stories work because high school is so bizarre on its own.  It makes sense in “Easy A” that Olive not only shoulders her new reputation, but uses it to poke her fellow students in the eye when her friend Brandon, who’s tired of being harassed for being gay, begs her to pretend to be his girlfriend.  (Again, in Ojai?  Why not set the story in Idaho if you need an anti-sex, homophobic locale?)  She agrees, but ratchets it up a notch:  they show up to a big party, lock themselves in a bedroom, and pretend to have the noisiest, most raucous sex they can muster.  She’s saved Brandon’s reputation by turning herself into a full-fledged school slut — so, being a wry, irreverent, smartypants type, she buys a bunch of naughty bustiers, pins on a big red A, and wears them to school.

Okay, so the literary tie-in doesn’t work, because it’s not possible to translate The Scarlet Letter into a high school sex comedy, especially when our heroine hasn’t had sex at all.  This is no “Clueless” (1995), for which director Amy Heckerling translated Jane Austen’s Emma; nor is it “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), a movie that improved on Shakespeare’s misogynistic Taming of the Shrew, if you ask me.  But the movie goes beyond high-school perversity when all manner of overweight, acne-scarred, hopeless boys at school ask Olive to work her fake-slut magic on their reputations — and she agrees, but only if they’ll give her gift cards.  That is, in exchange for a $50 gift card from Beds-n-Things, she’ll say she made out with you; for a $100 card for Macaroni Garden, she’ll say you had sex.  Why gift cards?  Because it somehow keeps it outside of the formal definition of “sex work”?  The movie doesn’t know what to do with this, and neither do we — it’s a bad, weird mistake.  If the movie is so eager to tell us that Olive is a virgin, why does it turn her into a prostitute by having her demand gift cards from eager johns?

Most of all I wished I knew more about Olive’s motives.  We’re vaguely aware that she sort of likes Todd (Penn Badgley), the improbably hunky guy who humiliates himself publicly and frequently as the school’s woodchuck mascot.  Despite being characterized as sort of a lovable dweeb, Todd shows off his ridiculously beefy torso and huge biceps way too frequently (he hardly ever seems to have his shirt on) to pass as a high school student.  (I walked out of the theater spluttering that he looks like he’s 32 years old, but in fact the actor is not quite 24.  Still.  Remember “Grease,” in which all the actors look like the parents of high-school age kids?)  But Olive’s interest in Todd doesn’t really emerge clearly till the end.  Nor is it clear why all the adult characters (and what actors! Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci…) in the film are living such happy sex lives, but their kids are so puritanical.  All of this strains credulity.

So yeah, it has its problems, but it makes you look back fondly on a lot of those earlier films.  If I were the “Filmspotting” guys, I’d host a marathon of great high school sex comedies to think more broadly and theoretically about what works — and with that in mind, let me tell you some of my favorites that lie just a little bit outside the genre but ultimately make it better:

  • Flirting (Australia, 1991, with Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton as the luminous leads)
  • Gregory’s Girl (Scotland, 1981, with John Gordon Sinclair as our bony, awkward hero)
  • Dazed and Confused (Austin, TX, 1993:  ensemble cast of a generation)
  • American Graffiti (Calif., 1973, a beautiful film)
  • Rushmore (Houston, 1998, in which Max Fischer stole my heart)
  • Saved! (middle America, 2004, in which the Christians learn to ease up on the dogma)

But maybe for the short term I’ll watch “Say Anything” again and relive my high school fantasies about John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler.  And then give myself a dose of “Clueless.”  As if!

“I Know Where I’m Going” — I’ve seen it probably five times now and can attest that it’s a really good film that gets better on multiple viewings. It could be seen as the film that inspired “Local Hero” with its elegiac images of the Scottish coast, except here the redemption comes in the form of love with the right man. If you’ve never seen it, prepare yourself for a quiet movie with the slightly improbable matchup of the brittle Wendy Hiller and the goofy-looking Roger Livesey (who, at 40-ish, simply could not pass for the early 30s he’s supposed to be). But their acting is perfect: Livesey is a good man; Hiller is redeemed. 

Oh, the makeover narrative — a stock aspect of the “woman’s” film. Most fully realized in Pride and Prejudice (in which both Elizabeth and Darcy must change) and satisfyingly re-created in the BBC version of “North and South” (curiously, not in the Gaskell novel, however), this storyline appeals again and again.  It’s worth noting that love isn’t always the main plot device; highly satisfying makeover narratives appear in films such as Judy Davis in “My Brilliant Career” all the way through the winsome Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” Clearly, the transformation doesn’t need a wedding altar scene at the end.

We can argue about the implications of narratives that transform the heroine through love, but let’s quickly point out the differences between female and male makeovers. First, I believe that female makeover tales most often require interesting male counterparts, three-dimensional creatures interesting on their own — whereas male makeover films seem to invariably feature what Nathan Rabin of The Onion calls the “manic pixie dream girl archetype.” Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Sandra Bullock in “Forces of Nature,” these women’s unpredictability and full embrace of life allows them to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is pure plot device, not a character worthy of an inner life or transformation. (Sidebar: Holly Welker has a piece this month that ties this archetype to Helen Andelin’s 1963 classic, Fascinating Womanhood, a book that might be termed the anti-Feminine Mystique [also published 1963].) The manic pixie dream girl merely permits the elaboration of self by the man.

It’s not that Roger Livesey is a terrifically complex figure in “I Know Where I’m Going,” but he’s the embodiment of the magic of Scotland’s Western Isles — poor but noble (like his namesake, the Colonel’s golden eagle), modest and well-mannered, familiar with everyone on the island, and a fine contrast to the rich industrialist Hiller intends to marry. Livesey grows on her, and on us; his aging, goofy looks become handsome as his admirable qualities become more pronounced. We imagine their marriage as a happy partnership of equals. Likewise, Peter Sarsgaard might have stolen “An Education” had it not been for the perfect performance by Mulligan — he subtly transforms from dashing to oh-so-slightly fleshy and deluded during the course of the film. His initial glamour is slowly exposed as a lack of depth as it becomes clear that the con man is conning himself, while Mulligan gains complexity by learning the hard way.

Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Drew Barrymore’s male counterparts in her string of makeover movies (“Home Fries,” “Never Been Kissed”) weren’t three-dimensional, either. But take a look at how hard Livesey works in this scene to mitigate the snarky comments by the locals about Hiller’s fiancé. He’s a good man. Makeover movie: I sing to your female protagonists and worthy male counterparts.