A well-crafted romantic comedy that reps a happy marriage between love and laughter, “Heartbreaker” is a step above commercial Gallic comedies and a step closer to Hollywood fare of yesteryear. Combining the glamour of “To Catch a Thief” with the ruckus of a Ben Stiller movie, TV vet Pascal Chaumeil’s French Riviera-set intrigue stars Romain Duris as a professional “couples splitter” whose latest target — a stunning and stubborn bride (Vanessa Paradis) — proves to be an Achilles’ heel dressed in Louboutin stilettos. This Universal France release opened strong mid-March, and should break more hearts when it’s eventually remade Stateside.
Already sold in U.K., Spain, Italy, and Canada, with U.S. remake rights nabbed by Universal, this second French-language co-production (following Joann Sfar’s “Gainsbourg”) from Focus Features Intl. seems, likes its protag, to have already accomplished its mission of seduction.
Smartly using their E9 million ($12 million) shooting budget, slick locations and numerous references to American pop culture, helmer Chaumeil and scribes Laurent Zeitoun (“I Do”), Jeremy Doner (“Damages”) and Yoann Gromb have managed to create a high-octane romance de luxe scenario that recalls classic Cote d’Azur pics like the Hitchcock caper and Lubitsch’s “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.”
Morocco-set prologue — in which professional seducer Alex (Duris) fools a lovestruck vacationer (Amandine Dewasmes) into thinking he’s a rugged Doctors Without Borders humanitarian — cleverly plays on the victim’s and the audience’s assumptions of what constitutes a perfect guy. Not only is Alex good-looking and charismatic, but he’s also capable of being overtly sentimental, tearing up as he painfully recalls a childhood that never existed.
Along with his prankster sis, Melanie (Julie Ferrier), and her goofball husband, Marc (Francois Damiens), Alex has made a killing stealing clueless girlfriends away from guys who pay him to do the dirty work rather than dump them directly. But recently, business has been difficult, and a mountain of debts forces the team to take on their most difficult assignment: Stop the upcoming marriage of Juliette (Paradis) and Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln), two beautiful millionaires who actually seem to be in love.
Posing as Juliette’s bodyguard when she lands in Monaco to prep the festivities, Alex attempts to impress her with his skills but winds up embarrassing himself time and again. Duris, a highly versatile actor capable of both wrenching physicality (“Persecution,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) and screwball shenanigans (“Russian Dolls”), masterfully reveals his character’s shifting personalities as he searches for the one that will win Juliette over. When it turns out the secret lies partly in her love of “Dirty Dancing,” the actor’s imitation of the late Patrick Swayze’s dance moves is both hilarious and impressively adept.
Known primarily in France as a successful ’80s pop singer and erstwhile actress (and in the U.S. as Johnny Depp’s longtime girlfriend), Paradis gives Juliette an elegance that surpasses the spoiled-brat persona one would expect to find here. Beyond the shopping bags and five-star hotels, her quest for something original and spontaneous is what brings her closer to Alex, and rather than a class-based love story, the film becomes a contest of free spirits vs. predictability.
An experienced TV helmer and former second-unit director for Luc Besson, Chaumeil keeps the action brisk and entertaining, while allowing the two protags enough breathing room to let their romance develop believably over time. Luscious widescreen vistas by Besson regular Thierry Arbogast make the Monaco settings as attractive as they surely are in real life, while Klaus Badelt’s score is a bit too tuned up in almost every scene.
French title is a play on words that literally translates as “Heart Scammer.”