Once upon a time, French moviemakers knew how to work miracles. Rooted passionately in the classic Hollywood past, which they stole from shamelessly, many French directors managed to use yesterday’s classics to create forward-looking masterpieces. And never mind Truffaut and Godard; even second stringers like Jacques Demy plundered American studios to make the quirky wonder The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, torn from scraps of Technicolor past. Now it’s like a mania with them, it seems, based on the few films that trickle over here… Amélie, The Artist, and now this pastiche, trying to be hip, a hybrid of The Artist and Mad Men but actually providing no more fun than a short wallow in nostalgia pond.
Populaire tells an unlikely story, even tries to pass it off as a fable, of a young woman leaving the provinces in 1959 for Paris and the supposedly enviable career of secretary. Attending a kind of cattle-call casting-couch interview, our heroine Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) connects with a moody insurance agent boss by hunt-and-pecking so fast he immediately decides to train her for the world championship of typing. This being a postmodern-pretending French film, the absurd premise leads us to a wacky collage of incongruous parody set pieces including a sitcom Christmas dinner and a sex scene that steals heavily from Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
All of this would be brilliant if it worked. Director Régis Roinsard has immersed himself in the looks of the 1950s, from magazine ads to couture, but failed to learn much about the era. This is not a veiled critique, nor an absurdist comedy; it’s just quirky. Many will be charmed by it, but you can’t help thinking of François Ozon’s delirious 8 Women from a decade ago. It was all style — retro and wrapped in artifice and allusions to Hollywood directors like Douglas Sirk. Yet it was somehow mysterious. It reveled in the past but returned feeling weirdly disorienting, our nostalgia having betrayed us. This movie is just an odd confection, empty fun from a country that once served up riches.