**1/2 (out of four)
In the France of the retro romance “Populaire,” typewriting contests in the late ‘50s had all the excitement of March Madness. Intense rivalries! Applauding fans shouting for their favorite typists! It’s awesome, baby, with a very carefully typed capital A!
Um, no. The problem with depicting typing battles with the intensity of a major sport, or even a crossword showdown, is that you can’t tell who’s winning until the victor is announced. It’s all just a lot of banging on the typewriter with no concept of who’s the fastest and most accurate. Maybe director/co-writer Regis Roinsard should have displayed some kind of ticker about keystrokes per minute, but really, that doesn’t quite get your heart pounding, does it?
Thankfully, bits of the surrounding love story do. Insurance man Louis (Romain Duris) doesn’t hire Rose (Deborah Francois) as a secretary because of her qualifications, but he denies that looks have anything to do with it. He employs her after seeing how fast she types with only two fingers, seeing potential for a world championship run once she learns to use all 10. Like the Doris Day-era films to which “Populaire” nods, Louis and Rose claim to have no attraction to each other, which typically sounds like people who doth protest too much.
Co-starring backward-looking cinema’s go-to (Berenice Bejo of “The Artist”), “Populaire” definitely needs more sass and pep. It’s not that funny, and, other than the emphasis on Rose wanting to be an equal in a man’s world, it doesn’t reinvent or modernize its pastel-colored nostalgia. It also seems like Louis calling Rose “pumpkin” because that’s what his mom calls him should be considered weird, not cute.
Still, if the depiction of people gathered around radios, excitedly listening to broadcasts of Rose competing, tries to turn the film into “That Thing You Type!” the old-fashioned charms of “Populaire” rise above, largely because this sort of innocent, sincere pursuit of emotional fulfillment happens so rarely on screen these days. After all those words pounded onto the typewriter, this throwback finds a way to capture the big L in any language.
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