8 women and populaire: what we talk about when we talk about the ‘50s

It was a Frenchie weekend for me, more specifically, a Frenchie throwback weekend: First I saw 8 Women, Francois Ozon’s murder-mystery-musical from 2002, and Populaire, a romantic comedy released in France last year. Not only were they both French and set in the 1950s, but in both the costuming and decor were so colorful and stylish they bordered on cartoony. Characters from either movie, or at least their clothes, could have been transposed into the other.

Even though they have this much superficially in common, the movies use the 1950s to different ends. I’ll start by talking about Populaire, whose French ‘50s are a lot like the American ‘60s of That Thing You Do!, where the general public shows an enthusiasm for celebrities and fame that feels very dated to a guy born in 1980.

Like the pop-music act of That Thing You Do!, Populaire’s Rose Pamphyle is a starry-eyed small-town girl with innocent aspirations for worldly success. The big difference is that in the world of Populaire, the speed-typing champion of France is conferred the acclaim and attention normally reserved for movie stars. The pure joy and credulousness of popular interest — in That Thing You Do! as well as Populaire — seems perfectly right for the image I have of the 1950s, a decade that, for me, is characterized by vintage advertisements, the kind where the announcer seems blissfully unaware that the listener might be skeptical of what he has to sell. It was a time, I imagine, when the audience’s relationship to stars and glitz was much less troubled and ambiguous than it is today. With this in mind, the idea that speed-typing could hurl you into the limelight is, if not plausible, at least evocative of that period.

It’s harder to explain 8 Women’s relationship to the 1950s, but probably more worthwhile. The mystery movie, like Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, is set in a snowbound house so that none of the characters can leave and, in effect, we can never directly see the wider world. Instead, everything 8 Women has to say about the culture of that period, it says through its pastiche of cultural artifacts and conceits. On the one hand, it’s a murder mystery, but it’s also a musical, not to mention a melodrama with traces of pulp fiction, where two beautiful women struggling on the floor are bound to make out eventually. In other words, it’s a mash-up of antiquated tropes and conventions.

Think of it this way: Populaire asks the question Can you believe we ever loved celebrities this much? while 8 Women asks Can you believe we ever liked movies this artificial, this hammy? At the same time, cheesecake, musicals, and murder mysteries all have their pleasures, so 8 Women is also implicitly asking Can we just go ahead and enjoy this tawdry stuff?

Those are similar questions, I think, but whereas 8 Women is mostly and almost entirely a pastiche, Populaire is primarily a straight-ahead, genuinely sentimental romantic comedy, and one that is pretty effective, actually. This creates a muddled message for Populaire: Its stylized, magical world of celebrated dactyloticians could be a critique of ’50s culture, while its rom-com plot just wants us to love its leads and cry when they break up. (Made-up word alert on “dactyloticians.”)

(There’s an entirely other argument to be had over whether a film can be distant and ironic while also being emotionally effective, but let’s just ignore that for the moment.)

Now I’m going to throw out an unsubstantiated suspicion. I bet that Populaire is attempting to induce the complex effects of pastiche and (the resulting) ironic detachment, like 8 Women does successfully and purposefully. But where 8 Women seems custom-built to do that, I suspect the filmmakers behind Populaire only had a vague sense of what irony was and decided to run with it without doing the math on how to attach a pretty basic love story to that idea.

Whatever. I liked them both well enough.

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