So I went to see that new movie this week, Heartbreaker. You know, the French one about the con men who break up couples that don’t know they’re unhappy. With the Dirty Dancing dance routine and the George Michael singing.
It was cute, but trite. Imminent marriage. Girl meets someone else. Marriage in jeapordy–who should the girl choose? Angst and hijinks ensue! How many films have that plot? (Someone’s probably written their PhD thesis about this, come to think of it.) That’s what all the reviews said too–some original stuff, but mainly a compilation of previously recycled plot devices from big American blockbusters.
What they didn’t say, though, (or at least I didn’t see anyone saying) is that a very large proportion of this material was..recycled…from the plot of the first film ever to win all five major Academy awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Feisty but spoiled young heiress escapes clutches of her overprotective father to get married to daring aristocrat. He tries to stop them. A last-minute squabble as her father walks her down the aisle–will she go through with it, or will she run away using the car her father has left for her at the back gate? I suppose if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal something brilliant.
The major difference is that in It Happened One Night (which, by the way, is a bit of a nonsensical title since it takes place over the course of three nights and four days) it is a glib, wisecracking newspaperman personified by Clark Gable who causes the lady to stray from her original love, and in Heartbreaker it is con man Romain Duris, pretending to be a bodyguard hired by the lady’s father. (He was actually hired by the father, but to break the couple up, not as a bodyguard.)
The opening of It Happened One Night is an argument between the young heiress (Claudette Colbert, playing Ellie Andrews) and her father, who is refusing to accept her marriage to a man called King Westley (I don’t think he really is a king, but what an unusual first name, eh?) on the grounds that this King is no prince among men, despite outward appearances. There you are saying to yourself, “He’s keeping her prisoner on a yacht against her will! What an evil old man!” And when she, in her stubbornness, dives off the yacht and swims ashore you cheer for her plucky ingenuity in breaking free from his clutches.
Then by the end of the film, they’re walking down the aisle together in preparation for her handoff to husband Westley and there he is saying, “You’re a sucker to go through with this, that other man loves you, he didn’t want the reward, he said you’d taken him for a ride, there’s a car waiting for you at the back gate if you change your mind…make an old man happy.” And against all your feminist instincts that say, “Oh Ellie, stop letting your life be ruled by the men in it; this is literally the patriarchy at work,” you are now rooting for the papa and hoping she makes a dash for it.
In Heartbreaker the character of the would-be husband is fleshed out more fully than in It Happened One Night. He really is a nice guy–as they say, she still gets scented love notes after three years. Plus, the other man is a con man (who is, in turn, being conned by the girl’s father)–in It Happened One Night our down-on-his-luck reporter is exactly who he says he is. I’d like to say that it makes the film more complex and gives an added depth of tension to the choice the female lead is forced to make, but it doesn’t really. The story is about her and the other guy; the future husband is just a plot point we keep tripping over. (A very sensitive plot point who didn’t deserve what he got in the end, but still…he didn’t need so much screen time.)
A final thought: in It Happened One Night, throughout the whole film, you never once see the two romantic leads kiss. The tension is there, a couple times it almost happens, but even at the end, when you know that things have gone the way the father wants them to and young Westley has not joined the family, you never actually see the romantic resolution. How many movies do you know that could pull that off, and still leave the audience perfectly satisfied? Frank Capra (Sicilian-born!) was a true cinematic genius. Others may emulate, but the original will always be the best.