L’Arnacoeur (English: Heartbreaker), a French romantic comedy from 2010, was a surprise hit at the box office across French-speaking Europe, and predictably a US remake is in the pipeline. The film focuses on a business run by attractive, charming Alex (Romain Duris, who you may recognise as the star of Jacques Audiard’s superb 2005 breakthrough film De Battre Mon Cœur S’est Arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)) along with his sister Mélanie (Julie Ferrier) and her husband Marc (François Damiens); the trio provide a service for concerned third-party clients who wish to see relationships broken up where the woman involved is “not knowingly unhappy”.
A light-hearted opening sequence clarifies just what that means. A young couple is on holiday in Africa. The man in the relationship is keen to while away his time drinking by the pool and leering at other women, whereas the woman in the relationship wants to see the sights of the desert and experience the natural world (I think they sound perfectly suited, but hey, what do I know?). Someone, somewhere has decided that they are ill-suited as a pair, and has paid Alex, Mélanie and Marc a sum of money to break the couple up. Marc and Mélanie operate in the background, gathering information and concocting outlandish ruses and coincidences. Alex’s job, meanwhile, is to make the woman fall in love with him; not quite enough to fully cheat on their partner, of course, but just enough to give the woman in question food for thought.
Despite the business appearing to be a successful one, the trio are inexplicably close to being declared bankrupt, and on top of that Alex owes a substantial sum to a loan shark, so when a wealthy gangster named Van der Becq (Jacques Frantz) comes along with a request that will banish their financial worries, they gleefully accept the work. Van der Becq wishes to see his daughter Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) separated from her English fiance Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln, who filmed this just before his star turn as Sheriff Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead first aired on TV). The trouble is Juliette and Jonathan are extremely happy together, and the couple are due to get married in five days. Alex sets himself up as Juliette’s bodyguard, and against his principles, tries to charm Juliette and break the couple up.
Throughout this film, which is filled with lighthearted whimsy, farce and slapstick, I felt sorry for the Jonathan character. He has seemingly done nothing wrong to deserve this kind of interference, and rather than take the easy way out and paint him in a bad light, Pascal Chaumeil’s film does exactly the opposite, and stresses on several occasions the quality of the man’s character. We see him give unwanted food to homeless people, and hear of both his success in life and philanthropic pursuits. But he’s not a rich, arrogant type, and he’s not even remotely smarmy … whenever he appears on screen he seems a likeable, reasonable chap.
Now, I can’t say this with any degree of certainty, and I may be a little paranoid here, but my fear is that the fact the character is an Englishman was enough for French audiences to withdraw all of their sympathy for the guy, which is necessary for the film to work as a straightforward crowd-pleasing rom-com. You can pretty much guarantee now that in the US remake the character will have some kind of flaw in order to make him unlikable. Perhaps he’ll be seen slapping the female lead at one point, or he’ll cheat on her. Enough to make you think “ah, fuck him, the douchebag” while Alex goes about seducing his wife-to-be. Or maybe they’ll just keep the fact he’s English as the sole reason to dislike the guy and cast Alan Rickman.
Good old Rick Grimes is kept off screen for much of the film, so it’s not like he’s permanently in the background bumming you out every time you start to smirk at the antics of Alex, Marc and Mélanie, but still: there’s this constant, nagging feeling that films like this don’t usually do the dirty to someone who doesn’t deserve it in the slightest. I’m actually surprised that I’m not thinking “You know what? It makes a nice change to see a good guy get royally fucked over in a rom-com.” It just feels weird.
The humour is kept light, and the jokes are largely so-so, some fairly amusing, some not-so-strong. Marc and Mélanie are at their best when squabbling with each other, and there are some laughs mined from repetitive jokes about Mélanie’s jobs when working undercover in a hotel. Echoing Groundhog Day, the central male character has to learn all the likes and interests of the female character through a process of trial and error in order to seduce them (in this case it’s wine, cheese, George Michael and Dirty Dancing), but references to these just crop up every so often and L’Arnacoeur feels a little anaemic when compared to the expertly-crafted repetition and pacing of Harold Ramis’s masterpiece. But then, so do most comedies.
Paradis plays Juliette straight, but the character is quite cold and hard, and it’s tough to really care about her plight, even when she finally and predictably realises that life with Jonathan might not give her the excitement she craves. Duris is charming as Alex, on the other hand, and despite the fact he is a professional heartbreaker, he’s likeable enough.
There are times when the film begins to play with its audience a little, particularly with regard to rom-com conventions, and I found myself enjoying the final act a lot simply because I was waiting to see if it would go all the way and deliver an unhappy ending rather than the expected, usual happy denouement. An easy watch, with a few laughs and some OK performances, L’Arnacouer doesn’t exactly take the romantic comedy into new territory, but it has its moments and there’s believable chemistry between the leads. You can see why it was successful, but it doesn’t do enough to set itself aside from, or help to revive, what is fast-becoming a stagnant genre.
Directed by: Pascal Chaumeil
Written by: Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner, Yohan Gromb
Starring: Romain Duris, Vansessa Paradis, Julie Ferrier, Andrew Lincoln
Running Time: 105 Minutes