On Sunday afternoon, I had a killer headache that rendered me unable to do little more than binge-stream Netflix. One of the movies I watched was a French rom com called Populaire. It’s set in 1959 and features ingenue Rose Pamphyle, who takes a job as a secretary with Louis Echard, owner of an insurance agency. Rose is terrible at the majority of her duties, but she excels as a typist, despite her two-finger hunt-and-peck style.
The description at IMDB says that Rose “unwittingly . . . awakens the dormant sports fan in Louis,” and he decides to train her to become a speed typing champion. I did not pick up on “the dormant sports fan” aspect. I spent the majority of the film thinking Louis decided to enter Rose in contests as a speed typist because he stood to get some sort of monetary gain (admittedly, there wasn’t really any evidence in the film for that interpretation) and because he found Rose attractive (there was evidence for this, including the prerequisite scene involving Louis and a friend where the friend insists that Louis is keeping Rose around because she’s attractive, and Louis denies it).
And I guess I ought to put in a spoilers notice, though honestly, how does one expect a rom com to end? Nevertheless, spoilers after the cut.
Another thing I didn’t pick up on: Toward the end of the film, after Louis and Rose have overcome their differences, Louis says to Rose something along the lines of, “I thought that if I could just help people, that would be enough for my own life.” This would indicate that Louis’s character is an altruistic one, and I suppose the audience is meant to believe it,* but I never saw that. Most of my reactions to Populaire were either 1) chuckling (it has its moments), or 2) thinking about how big of a jerk Louis is.
How is Louis a jerk? Let us count the ways.
- He constantly calls Rose “pumpkin” (once, she reminds him that she has a name, but then makes no other protests).
- His “training” consists of near-constant berating of her skills or lack thereof.
- He tells her repeatedly that she’s a terrible secretary.†
And the biggest bit of jerkiness is a trope that crops up far too commonly in romances, film or book: The “I love you but I’m not good enough for you, so therefore I will act like a jerk to make you hate me, because you will otherwise be unable to resist my manly charms” trope. I don’t know how it started–or I sort of do; the Meet Cutes need some sort of obstacle to overcome before the happy ending, and “I hate you” makes for a pretty big obstacle–but it’s problematic. This is a narrative that says that it’s acceptable to deliberately hurt someone emotionally, because somehow it’s a “lesser evil.” It also robs the object of the liar’s affection of any opportunity to assess the risks and make his/her own choice.
I’ll admit this trope comes up a lot in war romances. The hero will adhere to the “hurt you to help you” trope in order to prevent the OOA from following after him/her to a sure death. I mind it less there, where the stakes truly are about life and death and not, well, popularity; but one shouldn’t forget that the Real World meaning of “I hate you” is, the vast majority of the time, “I hate you.” If one absorbs the narrative of “I hate you doesn’t really mean I hate you but instead hides a soft, caramel chewy center of true lurve” enough times, one can start to believe it, with Real World consequences.
I also disliked Louis and Rose’s reconciliation. Louis doesn’t apologize for his jerkwaddery, and nor does Rose seem particularly troubled by it. She is simply happy to be reunited with Louis and gains the emotional fortitude and determination to win the international speed typing championships. And he’s nice then, but that’s for approximately 1/8 of the film. That’s a pretty crappy ratio in real life.
But I suppose what bothers me the most is that much of my assessment didn’t occur to me until a day after I’d watched the movie, because these are familiar tropes. That it’s okay to cause emotional trauma if you “somehow have the other person’s best interests at heart.” That then there’s nothing to forgive. That’s not the way it works in real life. And that’s not the way I want it to work in my fiction.
*Though the characterization would be even more effective if it were someone else saying that.
†No, she’s not a good secretary, but throughout the film I kept thinking about how Louis and Rose’s relationship was completely inappropriate‡ for boss and employee. That’s likely part of why the movie is set in 1959; it just couldn’t fly in a modern day setting. But hey, maybe in 1959 women did take jobs with the hope of eventually having the boss fall in love with them and marrying them?
‡To be fair, pretty much every employee-boss relationship in a rom com is inappropriate.