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January 28, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Heartbreaker (L’arnacoeur)


In my head, the typical French romance goes something like this; reasonably-looking bloke, European stylings and typically ‘normal’ teeth, falls for atypically beautiful girl. She is, of course, more or less untouchable and either he or she spirals into this lovefest with the pointless commitment of a 50-year-old dancing at a Northcote pub on a Saturday night. And, in the true tradition of all French films, it ends in a romantically tragic way, with both characters either making love, or having one passionate emotional moment, before their ties are severed forever. And for the French, that works beautifully.

Heartbreaker (L’arnacoeur), however, is not your typical French tragi-love story. Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis have a grand time swanning around Monaco in a perfect European summer. In fact, the most surprising thing about this movie is just how dedicated it is to the American concept of a romantic comedy.

But let’s come back to that. Duris plays Alex, a professional breaker of hearts, or more often, the guy who helps a girl twig that she’s wasting her time with a jerk. (Turns out there are quite a few brothers and fathers willing to surreptitiously hand over serious dough for this sort of thing.) Duris’ sister Mélanie (Julie Ferrier) is the financial brains behind the business, and with her loopy husband Marc (François Damiens) they spend most of their day sneaking around after Alex and his latest target, setting up Alex’s character as the perfect doctor, or adding to a romantic scene with the incongruous releasing of white doves.

Alex is, understandably, pretty damn happy with this setup, considering he gets to wander around in $3000 Paul Smith suits seducing women before running off to collect his cash. His biggest challenge comes when he must do the same to Juliette Van Der Becq (Paradis), a stubborn mule of a woman who doesn’t like the interference of her rich father and is happily (or so she thinks) engaged to English bore Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln, Love Actually). When Alex shows up slicked to the nines in Paul Smith and pretending to be, of all things, a bodyguard, he manages to convince her to keep him on with a series of convincing (and hilarious) tricks to keep her on side.

There are cringe-worthy moments, too. Juliette’s friend Sophie (Helena Noguerra) is painfully brassy at times, and the two seem an odd pairing for supposed friends; one is ostentatiously promiscuous and sleazy, the other quiet and refined. And for audiences too used to the perfect sets of chompers on display in American movies, the close-up shots of less-than-perfectly-aligned teeth is somewhat of a shock to the senses. It also makes you think of things less sexy than the situation the two lead characters find themselves in, playing with their money in the idyllic settings of Monaco. But then, you remember that this is a French film, and you relax, because you’re allowed to have crappy teeth when you’re French.

Juliette is your typical girl, in many respects, but Alex is not your typical boy. In this oh-so-unique situation, he is forced to prefer her interests over her own, which includes watching Dirty Dancing and his hilarious dedication to a giggly-worthy dance sequence. And while English fiancé Jonathan is indeed a bore, he’s not quite boring enough to justify his prospective father-in-law deciding it’s worth secretly paying someone to manipulate his daughter’s love life.

In many ways, this is not actually a French film. It’s a transparent attempt by the filmmakers to crack a foreign-language film into the difficult US mainstream market. To do that, they need to follow the rules before they can start breaking them. With Heartbreakers, that’s pretty much what you get: a formulaic American rom-com with subtitles. Still, I like it better than the million rom-coms the American movie factory pumps out each year. But there are the French touches; a nipple flash, a certain permissible arrogance and a slightly different take on rom-com humour. Marc is the standard comedic relief character, but in a French way, and that’s hard to explain unless you’ve seen it in action. And if you don’t mind knowing what’s coming, you’ll come out of it feeling like you should be getting on a plane to Monaco.

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