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Back in the day, it was every woman's dream to become a secretary; to assist and travel with powerful men of the corporate world, filing away all the important papers, typing up pages and pages of documents, taking calls and receiving messages etc. It was the best job any woman could ever dream of, and it would appear this trend was also in style in 1950s post-War France.
Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is a very ordinary grocer's daughter who longs to work in the city at a fancy office instead of being stuck in her cold and distant father's market for the rest of her life, checking on stocks. She travels to Normandy, filled with dreams all women of that era had, but with very little experience to qualify her for the role, it's obvious she is way out of her league when she sees a long line of bossy well-dressed know-it-alls applying for the exact same job. There is a long line of potential candidates, all of them dressed and primed perfectly to look the part.
The boss is Louis Échard (Romain Duris), a handsome, charismatic insurance salesman, who takes one look at Rose and determines correctly that she's an absolute klutzy disaster when it comes to being a secretary. But then he sees her clicking away at a typewriter. The incredible speed at which she types, even when she's only using her index fingers, is something Louis notices instantly, and he decides he can do something with her amazing talent. And so after a brief misunderstanding where she assumes he wants sex out of her, begins their hardcore training for a regional speed typing competition. She first needs to use all her ten fingers correctly, and then she's given numerous classic novels to type out word for word. Unbelievably, Rose has absolutely no problem with her boss quite blatantly using her. Sure he puts a roof over her head and the two of them play along to a nice enough domestic life, but the way he speaks to her and orders her around like a chauvinistic prat, you wonder why she sticks around towards the beginning of their relationship. Or perhaps this kind of casual superior complex is hinting towards how men generally behaved back in the day (see "Mad Men" for further evidence).
It boasts a wacky, farce-like premise, every bit as eccentric as the best French romantic comedies, and with its effective period mood, and light colourful touches here and there, the film is incredibly successful in setting this up as an entirely believable and convincing scenario. It's incredibly entertaining, and never before has speed typing been seriously seen as a competitive sport. When the various "races" get going, the regional, national, and eventually the international one, they are as tense as any race you can imagine. The thundering noise as the women furiously press down on their typewriters' keyboards, the surprisingly large crowd cheering and roaring their endless support, the sliding of every typewriter as they finish a line, and the changing over of the bits of paper, it's on a much bigger scale than what's originally anticipated. It's clearly a big deal in the "Populaire" universe, and the audience has no difficulty going along with the craze. The women are sat neatly in sports halls and arenas, and as they face off against one another, their steely, determined eyes to type as many words as possible burn with passion and competitive energy.
What finally happens between the two leads is hardly an element of surprise, nor is the overall result of the competitions. François and Duris have a natural charming chemistry, and their sugary-sweet dynamic is a part of what makes this highly watchable. Duris, as likable and amusing as ever with his icy cold exterior although actually warm and frothy on the inside, provides the perfect counterpart for François' clumsy, quirky and adorable village girl. The process of developing their romance cleverly touches on some more serious issues using its effective supporting cast to make the most of the well-rounded ensemble. Bérénice Bejo of "The Artist" fame takes on the most prominent subplot, as Louis' childhood sweetheart who may or may not have had something between them. World War II and its aftermath is also an issue talked about here, something that further enriches the characters here.
Although everything is very well dressed up to look grand, pretty and perfect, the film is not afraid to hint at various underlying sadness and challenges each character needs to overcome to make their relationship work. For her, there's the quickly growing fame that surrounds her talent, one that gradually steals her away from having a normal life. The constant attention from the press, the height of success she reaches obviously puts a strain on what is happening between the two of them. Whereas for him, he has pressure from his family to be a better, more cut-throat and successful businessman, as well as having trouble opening up his feelings. There is a particularly effective family dinner sequence in which all the drama and conflict come to surface with passive-aggressive action coming most noticeably from the patriarch - Rose diligently stands up for the man she's falling for and at the end of it all, there's a fairy-tale-like dance scene.
Which is what this essentially boils down to - showing the rags-to-riches tale of Rose Pamphyle, it's all very neat, skips over a lot of the heavy, serious ideas, until it gets to a rousing finale of big wins for both characters. But switching comfortably back and forth between well-measured comedy as well as engaging human drama that nicely strike a balance, here is an easily enjoyable, highly rewarding feel-good movie experience that deals with the most unexpected "sport". And for anyone who wants to argue that this isn't a proper event, watch and experience the sheer raw intensity involved with what goes into the world of speed-typing - you'll be amazed at just how exciting everything can be; and before you know it, you'll be cheering Rose on for victory. An American remake has been planned and it will only be a matter of time before that hits the screens - so before that happens, make sure you check out the original. Because as a rule, they're always better.