French ‘Heartbreaker’ is heartwarming

The French movie “Heartbreaker” (“L’Arnacoeur”) is formulaic, but the performances and the music make this movie heartwarming. The titular character, Alex Lippi, has a moral code and Romain Duris plays him with an awkward charm. If Alex were a dog, he’d be the scruffy, bright-eyed Benji-type terrier you’d pick up at the pound to give a second chance.

Alex is a thirty-something man-child. His profession: breaking up couples for pay. And he does it in high style, with phone taps, false identities and smooth lines based on proper investigation into the target’s interests. He works with his sister Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and his brother-in-law Marc (Francois Damiens).  Melanie is the financial director while Marc is the technical brains. The company never break up couples for reasons of racial or religious prejudice and the woman must really be unhappy. No sex is involved; at the most, Alex will give a chaste kiss and his regrets.

Their current target, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) is about to be married to Jonathan, (Andrew Lincoln). Juliette doesn’t seem to be unhappy and the trio vacillate on whether to interfere. They only have ten days and, to make the matter more pressing, the company is on the verge of bankruptcy because Alex is an artiste and Alex the artiste has borrowed from a loan shark. Alex needs this job to stay alive.

If Hollywood remakes this movie, they’ll probably miscast Alex as someone impossibly handsome and virile. Juliette will probably be someone too glamorous to be a wine expert.

Duris isn’t a Hollywood idol handsome. He’s slender and his Alex affects the kind of scruffy beard and moustache that went out of style in the U.S. after “Miami Vice” (1984-1989) went off the air. The romance here, is very rooted in nostalgia for the 1980s. Juliette’s favorite music is the 1984 George Michael (when he was in Wham!) hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Juliette’s favorite movie is the 1987 “Dirty Dance” and there’s some pleasantly funny scenes where Alex is practicing the dance steps to the movie with Marc. When Marc and Juliette finally dance, their moves won’t erase the images of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, but bring them into reality. The awkward but earnest moves of Duris is perhaps the best an everyman can hope for, even if he is able to successfully accomplish the lift.

Paradis can be glamorous, but here she is shown as a natural beauty with her hair down and straight. Her Juliette isn’t a society girl trying to get her photo taken (a la Paris Hilton), but a no-nonsense business woman who is financially independent and doesn’t need her wealthy father’s money, but likes the things that money can buy.

Juliette’s father does have his reasons for wanting the wedding stopped and those are revealed in the end. Alex ends up not being exactly a Prince Charming who will sweep Juliette off her feet, but rather someone who will speak to the fun, free-spirited side of her that she’s almost forgotten.

Directed by Pascal Chaumeil and written by Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb, the movie deftly balances the zanier moments with the more serious moments of emotional enlightenment, even if it’s just the slightest, nuanced facial expression of the future mother-in-law or the Juliette and Alex falling in love. This lightweight romance is for women who loved “Dirty Dancing” and wished there was someone somewhere who loved them enough to learn the steps, or even, for women who would love or are loved by someone who did take up dancing for them.

In French with English subtitles.

“Heartbreaker” is currently playing at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and will open soon at the Monica 4-Plex, the Town Center 5 and the Claremont 5.

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