With his feature-film debut, Pascal Chaumeil utilizes Romain Duris' effortless charm as never before, in the madcap hilarity that is Heartbreaker. Plus, Dirty Dancing!
Formula is a tricky thing to get right. Rely too heavily on it, and you wind up with a generic, predictable film. Eschew it too greatly and you risk alienating your audience, by confounding its expectations. Finding that middle ground, where a picture is able to satisfy the genre requirements without feeling like a stale retread on well-trodden soil, is a tricky balancing act.
Tricky, but not impossible, as director Pascal Chaumeil has demonstrated. With his debut feature film Heartbreaker, Chaumeil, who has been kicking around in French TV and commercials for years, has burst out onto the French movie scene. With French mega-stars Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis, the picture went on to gross a whopping $37 million in La Republique, and remake rights have been snapped up in Hollywood. The only question now is how the comedy will fare on American shores; IFC Films releases it on September 10.
A charmingly farcical film, Heartbreaker, which also showed at TFF 2010, is one of those kooky French comedies with a high-concept setup: this time, the gag is that our protagonist, Alex Lippi (Duris), along with his sister and her husband, runs a company that breaks up couples, utilizing Alex’s seductive skills and dashing good looks. They only break up unhappy couples; typically, the requests come in from a family member who can’t bear to see these two tie the knot. But when a massive debt of Alex’s is called in, his company becomes desperate, and they have to take on their toughest challenge yet: get the beautiful Juliette Van Der Becq (Paradis) to break up with her insanely rich, good-looking, kind fiancé, Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln). And oh yeah—Alex has ten days before the wedding.
Tribeca recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Chaumeil and Duris at their suite at the Crosby Hotel.
Tribeca: The romantic comedy is a very well worn genre, with lots of plot conventions that need to be met. I found in this film that those expectations were met, while it still remained unpredictable. Can you talk a bit about how you approached the genre?
Pascal Chaumeil: That’s exactly what we intended to do. Not to disappoint the audience, [but to] try to be smarter than the genre. We said, it’s a romantic comedy, there have to be certain moments in there—they have to dislike each other at the beginning, and then fall in love—and also try not to be too predictable.
Tribeca: What were some of those predictable genre tropes you wanted to avoid?
Pascal Chaumeil: When we showed the first cut to Universal, somebody said, “Something’s missing—we don’t have the scene where they realize they are falling in love with each other. Maybe there should be a scene where Alex tells his sister, ‘I’m falling in love with this girl.’” But we wanted them to fall in love without them noticing it, to make it subtler.
Tribeca: Romain, your performance never felt telegraphed, in a situation where what he’s going through, emotionally, could have been really explicit.
Romain Duris: I tried to believe in each moment, you know? I think we were thinking more about the professional relationship between Vanessa’s character and mine, without any feelings. After that, we kind of just let it go on its own.
Pascal Chaumeil: This guy doesn’t want to fall in love. He’s been in love before, and was very unhappy because of it. So he doesn’t realize he’s falling in love. It’s also, of course, against his job—he’s not allowed to fall in love with the woman he has to seduce. But we didn’t want to overplay it.
Tribeca: With a lot of these genre pictures, there’s very little respect for the audience. There’s the sense that you have to give them everything.
Pascal Chaumeil: Yes. We wanted to avoid that. We’d like to think that the audience is clever—you don’t want to tell them everything. When I watch the film, I like to try to be more clever than the character, to try to understand things even the characters don’t understand.
Romain Duris: I always feel stupid when I watch a movie. Like, oh fuck, I didn’t understand that.
Pascal Chaumeil: [Laughs]
Tribeca: Psychologically, how did you create Alex? Do you think he feels guilty about falling in love with her, to a certain extent?
Romain Duris: I tried not to think about it, when I was playing Alex. At one time, I felt like I had to be cynical to play him. I think he tries to save the woman who isn’t happy in a relationship, so I don’t think he feels guilty. But I did want to show him and his sister and her husband—they are not living with a lot of money—he is doing this strange job to live. I think he enjoys the challenge. He’s an actor: he enjoys playing a character in front of a woman and figuring out how he can be the most beautiful guy she’s seen. But like the rhythm of the film, he doesn’t stop and reflect on what he’s doing—life is difficult, he needs the money.
Pascal Chaumeil: I think he enjoys how difficult she is. Sometimes it’s too easy for him, so I think he likes the challenge.
Tribeca: What was the initial appeal for each of you, when you first read the script?
Pascal Chaumeil: I liked the concept; I thought it was funny. I really loved the opening.
Romain Duris: I wrote it for you.
Pascal Chaumeil: [laughs] There were some very funny moments, but the first draft needed some work. In fact, Romain didn’t read the first draft.
Romain Duris: But in fact, I felt the same way with the third or fourth draft.
Pascal Chaumeil: When I was happy with it, we sent it to Romain, who had the same problems I had had.
Tribeca: What needed work?
Romain Duris: For me, two things. There were some gags where I was like, what is that? Do we need that? They were too over-the-top. And I was afraid about how to play the character—how to play someone who’s just a seducer. I wanted to add some fragility, some doubts, not to do a James Bond thing, [or] I’m the new Don Juan because I have a beautiful face.
Tribeca: It would have been so easy to take that character to the extreme—make him a James Bond type—but instead he’s quite vulnerable, in his own way.
Romain Duris: Vulnerable. Vulnerable. That’s a good one.
Tribeca: [laughs] It must have taken some restraint to do that.
Pascal Chaumeil: In a way, Romain was perfect for that—
Romain Duris: Because I’m vulnerable? Because of my vulnerability?
Pascal Chaumeil: You pushed the character, to keep him real. You didn’t romanticize him.
Tribeca: There was such a great dynamic between you and Vanessa. How did you guys work on that?
Pascal Chaumeil: They brought a lot to their characters. I will say this about Vanessa: at the end, when she leaves the wedding, in my mind she is saying, “Fuck off, I don’t want this.” But Vanessa said no, she should be smiling, she is happy, she is running off to find the love of her life. It’s very nice to see that as she runs. That was not in the script. So both of them wanted to add something more moving to their relationship.