With a certain-to-be-grossly-inferior English-language remake (courtesy of Working Title) already in the works, French director Pascal Chaumeil's Heartbreaker practically screams for mainstream appreciation-a dream that's likely to prove elusive unless sufficient numbers of opening weekend fans can convince IFC to abandon their usual token release strategy in advance of television inundation. Make no mistake, however, this is a big screen movie, a whipsmart twist on a particular kind of romantic comedy typically associated with charmless big-budget American studio films. Given IFC's heavily structured, low-key release strategy, however, even blockbuster attendance figures wouldn't be enough to wag the dog.
The clever pun of the film's French title (L'arnacoeur) establishes the tantalizing premise: a swindler of the heart, in this case a charmingly shaggy rogue named Alex (Romain Duris), is a romancer-for-hire whose job it is to break up bad relationships by bringing the targeted party to her senses. What Alex and his team-including his sister (Julie Ferrier) and brother-in-law (François Damiens)-will not do is break up a perfectly good relationship.
The charades can be quite elaborate, as demonstrated by an enormously clever North African prologue, though the team's next job threatens to push their skills to the very limit. Hired by a wealthy magnate to charm his daughter Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) away from her fiancé just one week away from her Monte Carlo wedding, they shift into immediate overdrive, leaning heavily on luck, improvisation, high-tech gadgetry and the mysteriously enduring appeal of Dirty Dancing. Unfortunately, not only does the couple in question appear wholly and entirely happy with each other, but Alex soon finds himself violating his cardinal rule and developing feelings for Juliette.
Any casual moviegoer should immediately recognize the film's premise-the player who gets played is among the most timeworn and beloved romantic comedy scenarios in movie history, from such popular Rock Hudson/Doris Day pairings as Lover Come Back to more recent fare like the Will Smith comedy Hitch or the trio of ill-received Matthew McConaughey efforts: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. But Heartbreaker succeeds where the more recent pictures fail because it deviates from the formula at that crucial point where the others fall prey to it. Paradis, the former teen recording star and longtime companion to actor Johnny Depp, is as convincing and magical as the immensely talented Duris is irresistibly charming. Their chemistry, though unconventional, is deeply endearing and carries the film through a number of sequences which, in less capable hands, could have strained credulity past the breaking point. But television veteran and debut director Chaumeil, along with his writers Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb, approaches the effort from a uniquely European mindset, a firm belief that so long as the characters and emotions ring true, the rest almost doesn't matter.
Such transatlantic hybrids have been attempted before, of course, with mixed results. At their worst they end up feeling like mangled mutants, thematically incoherent and narratively schizophrenic. But when they work, as Heartbreaker does, they deliver an almost alchemical blend of the familiar and the refreshing.
It's worth noting, too, that the film speaks to a more general and increasingly positive trend in French cinema in general-along with the likes of Michel Hazanavicius, writer/director of the recent OSS 117 spoofs, Chaumeil represents a growing generation of intensely smart creatives emerging from the once desolate French television ranks, a class of filmmakers uniquely able to balance their uniquely French sensibilities with more broadly commercial instincts. In the end, if Hollywood can learn as much from them as they have clearly learned from Hollywood, filmgoers the world over will be the beneficiaries.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Roman Duris, Vanessa Paradis, Julie Ferrier, François Damiens, Héléna Noguerra, Andrew Lincoln and Jacques Frantz
Director: Pascal Chaumeil
Screenwriter: Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner & Yohan Gromb.
Producers: Nicolas Duval-Adassovsky & Laurent Zeitoun &Yann Zenou
Genre: Romantic Comedy; French-language, subtitled
Running time: 105 min
Release date: Sept 10 NY