Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
The reputation the French have for creating romantic comedy non pareil is well-deserved. In the last few years alone, we've had sophisticated charmers from Shall We Kiss to Priceless to Après vous. Now comes yet another, sporting a knock-out premise that is so original that it almost makes it impossible for the movie to live up to its nifty/nasty concept. That it finally does is due as much to the mysterious workings of chemistry between actors (Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis) and the talent of a director new to the full-length-movie-scene and the talent of new director Pascal Chaumeil (pronounced Show-MAY) as to the film's very funny and unusual script.
I’ll not give away, plot-wise, even that very smart premise -- and, yes, it is tempting to talk about. Instead, be content with knowing that Heartbreaker (L'arnacoeur) involves a dashing and sexy young man (Duris), his nifty sister (Julie Ferrier) and her slightly demented boyfriend (François Damiens), a lovely woman about to be married (Paradis) and her father (Jacques Frantz), who for some reason is not particularly keen on the marriage. Out of this mix, Chaumeil and his script-writing team (Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb) have spun their sometimes flaky flax into something approaching gold.
The thing about romantic comedy is that we can almost be certain that our hero and heroine will end up together. [Spoiler alert] And when this ends up not the case and still immensely satisfy us is a rarity. My Best Friend's Wedding, for example, managed it because those who did end up together were meant for each other, and the road to getting them there proved as funny as it was emotionally satisfying-- thanks in no small part to Australian's P.J.Hogan's inventive, humane direction and Ronald Bass' writing.
What Chaumeil and crew do is to keep us in a good deal of suspense about "will they or won't they," right up until the finale. So well-constructed are the characters, however, that whichever way the movie went, I was prepared to accept it. Being French, the film offers more philosophy -- on the surface and beneath it -- than we usually find in American rom-com, more quirkiness and subtlety, too. The relationship between Duris and Paradis blossoms incrementally, moving forward then back a step or two. There is no Big Moment when either of them have the usual "realization." Yet we know, without a doubt, what these two have begun to feel for each other. And we appreciate being allowed to figure this out for ourselves.
If this were all Heartbreaker had to offer, it would still be a lot in these days of spell-it-out-for-the-imbeciles brand of movie-making. But there's more to it. The supporting cast is terrific, too, with Damiens -- who is so memorable in Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family (so far my favorite film of the year, and still with no U.S. distribution, damn it!) -- funny and bizarre in equal doses. He's backed up well by the super-rational and quite charming Ferrier (from the recent Micmacs).
The director, too, has a number of quiet but clever tricks up his sleeve, from his terrific opening, in which his camera moves from one character to another, with barely a glimpse of the person who will soon be all-important. POV here is everything, and Chaumeil uses it very well -- just as he (and his sound crew) do, later in the film, with an effect that I don't recall noticing ever before: the sound of rain stopping.
If the knock-about farce threatens to go over the top -- and it does with the not-once-but-twice whomping on the head of a female subsidiary character (Helena Noguerra,) who is suddenly de trop, in a rather stupidly inhumane moment over which someone on the creative staff ought to have cried foul. Still, the movie manages to arrive home pretty much intact. Watching the con artist hero succumb to his own con is usually a treat, and actor Duris makes the most of it. Paradis, on the other hand, is surprisingly stern and unforgiving. When she melts, there's a sadness to that dissolve and yet her strength remains, so that we simply cannot be sure what her final decision will be. The way the chemistry of these two performers meets, greets, smashes and fumbles makes for enormously entertaining fun -- and then for some simple, sweet, very genuine feeling.
In French with English and Spanish subtitles. No real extras on the DVD other than a trailer and a TV spot.
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