Heartbreaker by Alice Whitwham

The rhythm of Heartbreaker ’s romance lulls the audience into submission as easily as Alex seduces his targets. Just sometimes, it’s fun to be putty. Alice Whitwham reviews Pascal Chaumeil’s romantic comedy.

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Vanessa Paradis as Juliette and Romain Duris as Alex in HEARTBREAKER, directed by Pascal Chaumeil. Photo Credit: Magali Bragard. An IFC Films release.

This fast-paced and smart romantic comedy from Pascal Chaumeil puts a new spin on a well-worn Hollywood template. The film stars the irresistible Alex (Romain Duris, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, 2005), secretly hired by over-bearing fathers to break up their daughters’ unsuitable relationships. Whether squeezing out fake tears, unleashing cages of doves or speeding through Africa administering vaccines to doe-eyed children, Alex poses as each girl’s dream man. He sweeps them off their feet in no time and, newly assured of the flaws in their own romantic lives, they get the confidence to chuck Mr. Inappropriate.

It’s a mischievous premise. Alex might be a love-crusher with principles (he won’t agree to break up a couple unless he judges the relationship to be unhappy from the outset, nor will he actually sleep with the girl). But Alex’s targets are left in the lurch when he eventually leaves them for his pay-check. And getting women to ditch the man for the fantasy is an outrageous con. (The assumption that women can be so easily duped is also a little irritating.) When commissioned by a millionaire magnate to pose as “bodyguard” to the prickly but vulnerable Juliette (the exquisite Vanessa Paradis), Alex is played at his own game. Can he resist the urge to fall head over heels in love with her? Of course not.

The film’s breezy, buoyant tone just about allows its dodgy ethics to hold up. It isn’t asking us to take it all that seriously. This otherwise familiar romantic comedy contains elements of both heist and slapstick – and it even riffs on the famous final scene from Dirty Dancing (Alex’s awkward efforts to do the Patrick Swayze are comically hopeless). Love plot aside, Alex suffers from several run-ins with scar-faced loan sharks, who tend to enjoy dangling him from the shimmering balconies of Monaco apartments, and belting him in the balls. And his two likable but hapless sidekicks (Julie Ferrer and Francoise Damiens) are frequently embroiled in the sticky consequences of their less-than-well-executed schemes.

Even the film’s conventional romantic moments are punctured by a light-hearted knowingness. Familiar frames are often cut with the banal and mercenary. Take, for example, the group of cyclers that whizz across the sun-drenched roadside on which Alex and Juliette kiss at last. (Yes, he does win her heart, and yes, she does leave the do-gooding but ever so tedious fiance, played by Andrew Lincoln.) Or the birds-eye shot of Alex’s taxi skidding to a halt when his attempt to substitute the currency of cliche (“I’m off to see the woman of my dreams”) for his missing wallet just doesn’t fly. The film, as well as Alex, is in the business of constructing an ephemeral romantic fantasy. But it is wittily self-conscious about doing so.

In the end, the rhythm of Heartbreaker ’s romance lulls the audience into submission as easily as Alex seduces his targets. Just sometimes, it’s fun to be putty. Moreover, if Alex is appointed only to fashion for Juliette a fantastical love plot (“I came to give you a beautiful love story,” he says), his own failure to remain emotionally detached suddenly turns role-play into reality. Sure, we might repeat well-worn words when we fall in love. But maybe it doesn’t much matter, so long as we mean them.

Heartbreaker ’s sharp self-awareness saves it from charges of dull predictability. Cute and light, this silly sophisticated film flies by nicely.

Heartbreaker is in theaters now.

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