Priceless worthy of admission

France, 2006
Directed By: Pierre Salvadori
Written By: Benoît Graffin, Pierre Salvadori
Starring: Audrey Tatou, Gad Elmaleh, Marie-Christine Adam, Vernon Dobtcheff
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including nudity
3.5 out of 5 stars

I have a love-hate relationship with romantic comedies that resembles more of a hate-hate relationship most of the time. As genres go, it isn’t sitting at the bottom of my barrel (musical bio-pic, I’m looking at you), but it’s close. Tack on the word ‘French’ to the beginning and things become even more problematic. From the heights of absolute adoration (Amelie) to the depths pure hatred (Love Me If You Dare, perhaps one of the worst films I have ever seen), the French take on the romantic comedy consistently elicits extreme reactions from me. They are experimental with their rom-coms as often as we are generic with ours, but the results are not always palatable, or even coherent for that matter. So it was with trepidation that I popped my screener of Priceless into the DVD player, hoping for the best but bracing myself to be emotionally assaulted with the worst. Surprisingly, the latest Audrey Tatou (Amelie, The Da Vinci Code) vehicle doesn’t register at either extreme, but sits comfortably somewhere in the middle.

Our starlet, the French reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn, is in full-on Breakfast at Tiffany’s mode here, channeling Holly Golightly with voodoo-like precision. She plays Irené, a petulant gold digger who, when bored with her geriatric fiancé and out for a quick midnight tryst, mistakes Jean, an oblivious bartender (Gad Elmaleh), for a man of means. Her superficial engagement blows up in her face and she’s stuck with what amounts to a penniless (albeit slightly more attractive) version of Mr. Bean. He’s too smitten to tell her how empty his pockets really are, but that ruse lasts as long as hers did, and soon she’s dumped him in lieu of more expensive fish, which she plans to fry all the way to another posh engagement. Jean stumbles into his own parasitic gold digging affair with a rich widow, and before long the two are jockeying for position amidst posh boutiques and black-tie cocktail parties, all the while falling in love with one another.

Perhaps the greatest shock in Priceless is that the eternally charming Tatou is out-charmed in every scene by Elmaleh, who owns this film like Peter Sellars owned The Pink Panther. She might be the marketing hook (notice how many other actors share the poster with her), but he’s the reason to show up. From bumbling dog walker to naively blushing virgin to suave seducer, Elmaleh turns in a magnificent performance, effortlessly convincing us of Jean’s ugly duckling transformation. And not only is his acting a joy to watch, he’s also howlingly funny. One particular sequence, in which he prank calls Irené’s elderly benefactor, offering him pre-masticated food as part of the hotel’s “senior package,” had me in tears.

Tatou isn’t nearly his match, although this is partly by design. Her character is nasty, vindictive, and relentlessly shallow, standing little chance of winning the audience’s sympathy against his wounded puppy dog. Design is only partly to blame however, for while Elmaleh convinces us that Jean loves Irené, Tatou fails to convince us that Irené warrants it. Chemistry certainly exists between the two leads, but the film suffers because, quite frankly, she doesn’t deserve him.

Another French film I referenced at the beginning, Love Me If You Dare, bears mentioning again. In it the two would-be lovers one up each other with increasingly obscene dares until the whole picture spirals out of control into a ludicrous, sadomasochistic, chaotic mess that lacks any kind of moral compass. I don’t mean that it’s amoral (many films aspire to anti-morality with great success), but that it has no clear interpretation of right and wrong and shifts the definitions around like a color blind chameleon. The effect is disorienting and, in the employ of a film this aggressively cruel, borderline abusive.

Priceless, while never reaching the nether regions inhabited by Love Me If You Dare, does share some of its morally challenged sensibilities. Take one instance, where Jean is waiting for Irené to rendezvous with him for a late night fiesta at the beach. Irené feigns exhaustion with her wrinkled patron, but the old codger just won’t go to sleep, forcing her to…um…wear him out a bit. The scene is played for laughs, but this laissez-faire attitude towards sexual intimacy damages the film’s climax, when one character breathlessly rushes to stop another one from consummating an equally shallow relationship. It’s impossible to actually care at that moment because the film has already given us a loosey-goosey attitude towards sex, stripping away any emotional resonance the climax might have had. Or, to put it another way, since both Irené and Jean are already whoring themselves out, what difference is a little more whoring going to make anyways?

For all my complaints, Priceless is thoroughly enjoyable, and Elmaleh’s performance is the stuff of grand entertainment. The French have some whacked out notions of love and intimacy, and while they may potentially offend, their films are, at the very least, more interesting than the stupefying dreck routinely shoved into American multiplexes. Priceless is, pun intended, worth the price of admission.
Priceless is now playing at the Circle Cinema. Call 585-FILM for showtimes and tickets.

About the Author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.