Your only daughter is madly in love with an absolute fool, your sister has just got engaged to a stupid lout? Your best friend is going out with a jerk? There is still one man left who can save the day. His name: Alex Lippi (Romain Duris). His profession: homewrecker. His method: seduction. But be warned, Alex has ethics. He only breaks up couples when the woman is unhappy. So why does he accept this new contract? His target is called Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), a young, free-spirited and independent heiress. In ten days she'll marry an attractive young man whom she loves more than anything else in the world.
In Heartbreaker, the hit French romantic comedy, Romain Duris swaggers towards the camera like a man who is sure of himself. Scruffy but loftily charming, rocking a white suit without a hint of self-doubt, his sabotaging gigolo Alex is the ideal lead for the genre, because he’s only in love with himself, and such certainty can only result in humour.
Heartbreaker answers a tricky query: not whether the two leads will end up together – this is a romantic comedy, the outcome is guaranteed – but just where the handsome Duris will fit into the distinguished lineage of French leading men. Up until now, as he’s hopped back and forth between the likes of The Spanish Apartment and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, it’s only been clear who he wasn’t likely to follow. He wasn’t a stoic presence like Jean Gabin, a rumpled signifier of dissatisfaction in the mould of the young Jean-Paul Belmondo, or a committed everyman such as Daniel Auteuil; Duris it now appears is a con(fidence) man, a charmer who can give a serenely attractive gravity to the most ludicrous of situations.
In a neatly assembled introduction that’s sets the breezy, blithe tone that thankfully holds out for most of Pascal Chaumeil’s movie, we meet Alex on assignment in North Africa. He and his methodical sister, Melanie (Julie Ferrier), and her tech-savvy husband, Marc (Francois Damiens), separate a holidaying young woman from her boorish boyfriend so that Alex, posing as an exiled doctor helping desert tribesman, can steal her heart, refuse to commandeer it and then send it onwards so that she leaves her present partner behind and attempts to find someone better.
It’s daft, but it unfolds with such nutty Mission Impossible-style élan, that you even buy the many rules that keep Alex noble even as he trades on deception (he doesn’t sleep with his subjects, he only accepts female subjects who are unhappy but don’t know it). But his illusions are expensive, so the business is broke and Alex’s debts to loan sharks means he has to take on the unwanted job, commissioned by her gangster father, of breaking up the refined Juliette Van Der Becq (Vanessa Paradis) and her seemingly perfect fiancé, Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) in the final four days before their Monaco wedding.
Heartbreaker arrives with the heavyweight tag of being the film that rescues the romantic comedy from Hollywood’s dire clutches, which is somewhat curious since the genre was essentially invented by European exiles such as the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch and has always had a home on the continent. It is not radically different in design to recent American outings, both good (Knocked Up) and bad (take your pick), in that it wheels out exaggerated supporting characters, such as Juliette’s carnivorously slutty best friend, Sophie (Helena Noguerra), who naturally propositions Alex, who is trailing Juliette as her bodyguard, and sets up pieces of comic business, such as Juliette’s secret love of Dirty Dancing, that can only be resolved by recreating a dance sequence from the original.
What makes it stand out is the ease of not only Duris, who is professionally challenged and then personally besotted with his character’s target, but also the rarely seen Paradis (her husband, Johnny Depp, works far more than she does). Alex describes Juliette as 'a dormant volcano", and that distance Paradis holds, that understanding that she doesn’t have to be loved without question or pause by the viewing audience, is the perfect bulwark for Alex to smash himself upon. Her gap-toothed smile doesn’t hurt either.
The emotional trough that comes with Juliette not knowing what to do once Alex gets through to her can’t match the giddy pleasure of the first two acts, but in being farcical instead of cute, Heartbreaker reveals itself as a welcome treat. It leaves you knowingly happy.
Catch Heartbreaker at SBS On Demand: