March 25, 2010By Nick HammondFilm
The onscreen sparks fly freely between Vanessa Paradis and Romain Duris.

Although the chief joy of spending time in Paris is experiencing and trying to understand French life with all its wonders and quirks, there are moments when it is impossible to escape feelings of profound cultural difference. And I must admit that when it comes to attitudes toward comedy, I feel like I dropped in from outer space. As much as I’ve tried to appreciate French stand-up comics, for example, their none-too-subtle humor tends to leave me cold. And it works both ways. A few years ago, I remember watching the wonderful American film Sideways (dismissed in two lines by the movie critic for the French newspaper Libération as just another road movie) in a Parisian cinema: while I found it hard to suppress howls of laughter throughout, the rest of the audience only laughed once, when the central character stumbled down a hill. It gave me the impression that slapstick comedy appeals to the French audience in a way that verbal humor or irony does not.

I am, of course, making gross generalizations here. I have many French friends with a finely honed sense of humor, and I have even seen the occasional French comedy that really did make me laugh. But when I go to a French movie labeled a comedy, I find it is always best to prepare for the worst, as I did with the new film directed by Pascal Chaumeil, L’Arnacœur (a play on “arnaqueur,” meaning “hustler” or “scammer,” and “cœur” – heart). My fears, however, turned out to be groundless, as I, my companion and the French audience all laughed heartily at the same things throughout.

This glorious romp is about Alex (played with élan by the wonderfully versatile Romain Duris), whose job is to break up couples by seducing the female partner, not just through his physical charms but also through carefully prepared scenarios that will appeal to the particular sensibilities of the woman (the opening scene in a desert, complete with children needing to be cured and doves flying up from the sand dunes, sets the tone for the rest of the movie). Aided by his sister and brother-in-law (an effervescently comic double act played by Julie Ferrier and François Damiens), Alex has up to now only separated couples where the female partner is unhappy. However, this time his task is much more difficult, as he is asked to break up a happy couple, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and her English fiancé Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln), who are due to get married in only a few days’ time.

Alex is forced to learn as much about Juliette as he can in order to seduce her before the wedding and even has to learn the dance moves from Dirty Dancing and memorize the words to George Michael songs; Duris reveals himself here to be both a marvelously comic physical actor and curiously touching. The resulting wildly improbable scenes involve borrowings from several movie genres, all of which work riotously well. Above all, the central casting of Duris and Paradis is inspired. Although Paradis is a little too long in the tooth to be playing a blushing young bride, the onscreen chemistry between the two is very believable.

This movie is eminently exportable (it even has as many shameless product placements as most American blockbusters these days), but the English title Heartbreaker does not quite capture the double meaning of tricksterism and affairs of the heart. Any suggestions?


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