Setting an appropriate tone in a French romantic-comedy is a bit of a risky enterprise, the broad comedy of the films often based on a rather chauvinistic view of relationships that could be seen as perpetuating stereotypes (Alexandra Leclère’s Le prix à payer and Pierre Salvadori’s Hors de prix in particular open to criticism that they set women’s rights back decades), without subtly undermining them as the best American films of its type do. But that’s also a rather broad statement, and just as there are a plethora of really, really bad American rom-com films that stick to the established formula without really having anything new to add to the genre, there are some French films that are smart and knowing enough to cross-over and appeal to a wider, smarter and an international audience. Heartbreaker is one such film.
On paper, you wouldn’t think this would be the case, the film being a variation of the old Dirty Rotten Scoundrels / Wedding Crashers / The Brothers Bloom con-man game with a romantic angle. In Heartbreakers Alex (Romain Duris) is a serial seductor of vulnerable women, but it’s his job. He’s paid, often by anxious relatives, to break up mismatched couples by opening the eyes of women, daughters and sisters unfortunately hitched to worthless men who are no good for them, to the realisation that they have sacrificed their romantic ideals and that somewhere out there they can still find a person who is better in tune with them and capable of offering them the love they deserve.
Unfortunately, Alex tells them at a judiciously timed moment with a meticulously calculated tear trickling from his eye, tragically that man cannot be him. It’s too late for him to start anew, but it’s not too late for them. It’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it, and with a good team to back him up with well-researched data and well-rehearsed routines, Alex is handsome, smooth, charming enough to get the job done and get it done well, leaving behind no broken hearts in the process (the English title is unfortunately and unavoidably slightly inaccurate in its translation of the play on words of the original French title L’arnacoeur).
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Yep – inevitably Alex meets his match. Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) is a rich, beautiful heiress who is about to be married to an English millionaire (Andrew Lincoln). Alex isn’t sure why Juliette’s father is anxious to break up what looks like a perfect match to a man who is kind, thoughtful, generous and romantic, a caring man and a philanthropist, but he knows he’s got his work cut out trying to convince her to break off the engagement, particularly as the wedding in Monaco is only a week away. Other than Juliette’s fondness for the music of George Michael and her love of Dirty Dancing, Alex doesn’t have much to go on either to stage a seduction, so the standard plots and routines aren’t going to work here. Some creativity is called for that will push Alex to his limits and perhaps (what do I mean “perhaps”?) take him into new territory where he isn’t so sure of his own feelings. Just to complicate matters, such elaborate schemes don’t come cheaply and Alex has run up a few serious debts in his line of work, so with some big, mean, ugly-looking characters on his back looking for their money, Alex needs to make this one count.
Predictable maybe, and yes, it sure looks like Heartbreakers doesn’t undermine any stereotypes but at the very least the reader should be able to see the comedy potential in the outline of the film. It doesn’t take more than ten minutes however to establish a tongue-in-cheek tone that shows that the filmmakers know the genre they are playing with and that they know exactly how to present it. Pascal Chaumeil, director of the French crime thriller ‘Spiral’ and previously assistant director to Luc Besson on Léon, The Fifth Element and Joan of Arc: The Messenger, brings across the director’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and shoots the film (much as Besson did himself with Arbogast in another fine French romantic comedy a few years back, Angel-A), with the all the attitude and dynamic of an action movie, making fine use of Monaco as a stunning backdrop.
All of the elements fall into place to support this choice, from the snappy script, to the planning and teamwork that go into schemes for seduction that are as elaborate as any bank heist. The performances are just as knowing and likeable, Duris a convincing gigolo, but not too smooth or perfect, allowing a little vulnerability and uncertainty to show though on occasions, knowing when to play it straight and when to play it for laughs. He’s capably supported by the comedy husband and wife team of Marc and Sophie (François Damiens and Héléna Noguerra), who bring a great deal more personality and charm to their character than would normally be expected for secondary supporting roles.
The routines the film runs through then may just be as smooth, as schematic and as calculated as Alex’s patter with the ladies, but that’s the whole point. Like Alex, Heartbreaker plays on the strengths of cinema to create an illusion of giving the viewer everything they want (and it doesn’t come more calculated and obvious than Dirty Dancing) without insulting our intelligence in the process, which is of course the secret of every successful romantic comedy.