Two gifted performers, Audrey Tautou and Gad Elmaleh, try but fail to overcome a fundamentally sordid premise in "Priceless," a tale of two whores at play on the French Riviera. Goldwyn picked up this movie, which should have definite boxoffice appeal among Francophiles and Tautou fans. The good news is that the two stars are at the top of their game.
Tautou plays Irene, a gold digger who one drunken night mistakes Jean, a bartender in a Biarritz resort, for one of the millionaires she regularly beds and bilks. The sex between them is combustible, but once she discovers his true standing, Irene decamps for Nice to ply her trade on the Riviera. Jean is smitten and follows her there, though she continues to resist. So he becomes the paid companion to a wealthy older woman, hoping that jealousy eventually will bring Irene back to him. From there the merry games ensue.
Director Pierre Salvadori clearly hopes to recapture the spirit of such vintage Hollywood comedies as Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" or Mitchell Leisen's "Midnight" (from a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), both of which revolve around con artists playing romantic games with wealthier marks. But the buoyant, mischievous spirit of those classics eludes Salvadori.
The two stars can't be faulted. As he showed recently in "The Valet," Elmaleh is a masterful comic actor. His bemused reactions and flair for subdued physical comedy result in many uproarious moments. Just watch the finesse with which he flashes his expensive new watch in Tautou's face, and you will appreciate his gifts.
Tautou attempts an intriguing change of pace as the hardened hooker yet retains her innate charm without softening the character. Special mention should also be given to Marie-Christine Adam as the worldly wise matron who adopts Jean. She gives dimension to a character who could have been no more than the butt of a dirty joke.
So the actors shine, and the scenery is sumptuous. Still, all the high gloss can't disguise or redeem the fundamentally seamy story. It's hard to find these two exploitative operators quite as endearing as Salvadori hopes. In older Hollywood movies, it helped that the writers and directors were constrained by the Production Code from making the sexual shenanigans explicit.
When we actually see the characters in bed with their aged tricks, some of the charm evaporates. Or maybe if the characters demonstrated more cleverness in their machinations, we would be more tickled by their opportunism. But a scene in which Irene goes through her extensive black book looking for any old man to rescue her from the threat of poverty suggests that she's pathetically desperate rather than deliciously seductive.
A game of one-upsmanship that depends on two characters abusing the older lovers who dote on them is not ultimately terribly amusing. The laughs curdle long before the movie comes to an end.
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Les Films Pelleas, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Tovo Films
Director: Pierre Salvadori
Screenwriters: Pierre Salvadori, Benoit Graffin
Producer: Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Gilles Henry
Music: Camille Bazbaz
Editor: Isabelle Devinck
Irene: Audrey Tautou
Jean: Gad Elmaleh
Madeleine: Marie-Christine Adam
Jacques: Vernon Dobtcheff
Gilles: Jacques Spiesser
Agnes: Annelise Hesme
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating