Thursday, October 21, 2010

Priceless (2006)

Gold diggers! As vital a part of culture as jazz and the cheeseburger, but gold diggers have never made that leap to trendy popular acceptance. Sure, in 1929 you had Warner Brothers' Gold Diggers of Broadway burning up all the bijous—so popular that, like the Star Wars films, sequels were quickly rushed into production! Gold Diggers of 1933! Gold Diggers of 1935! And...I think you know where I'm going with this...Gold Diggers of 1937! America couldn't get enough of gold diggers!

Gold Diggers of 1930-something


...until the forties, WWII, and austerity. Aside from Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart, gold diggers were out of fashion. The fifties? No gold diggers. The sixties? Just a dancing troupe for Dean Martin to stumble against. The seventies, eighties, nineties? No gold diggers. I think my point, and I do have one, is that there haven't been many gold diggers in motion pictures over the past fifty years.

Priceless/Hors de prixEnter the French film Priceless (2006), directed by Pierre Salvadori and starring Audrey Tautou (c'mon, you fell in love with her too in Amélie), with comedian Gad Elmaleh in his usual role of the hapless but lovable loser.

Amélie Audrey is Irène, cozying up to rich older men on the French Riviera: in exchange for gifts of expensive dresses, shoes, jewelry and trips, Audrey provides a reciprocal...let's say companionship—the finest that money can buy. She mistakes hotel barman Jean (Elmaleh) for a rich guest and promptly (and drunkly) falls into bed with him...and he in love with her.

Priceless


A year later, the same happens again, except this time he's found out, and that's where the fun begins.

Except...well, this is a French film, and fun takes a different route and drives a smaller, flashier car on the Continent. Jean leaves his job, pursues Irène down the Riviera, and bankrupts himself to attempt to keep her attention and win her heart. When he runs out of money, he finds he must take up with rich older Madeleine a to keep himself, like Irène, afloat in the sea of wealth.

Priceless


Irène adopts Jean as her pet project: to teach him how to tease and coax the finest gifts and attention out of his new keeper. Except, of course, Jean has never really stopped loving Irène...

There's a lot of gorgeous location photography in Priceless: lush expansive hotels, bars, and the deep blue of the Mediterranean...

Priceless


And of course, approximately one million gorgeous, slinky dresses for Irène to show off:

Priceless


All this is filmed against a backdrop of the glorious haze of yellow tropical sunlight or the deep rich reds and golds of swank hotel interiors, like a vacation poster dream come true. The tropical surroundings gives director Salvadori a chance to frame Audrey Tautou in brilliance like an angel, and it's when we see her in softer, cooler light (dawn on the beach, shivering in a deck chair at dusk) that the halo comes off and we see the girl inside the gold digger.

Priceless


So: romantic comedy? Sure—Gad Elmaleh plays awkward and socially inept without lapsing into pratfalls or caricature, and Marie-Christine Adam gives a wonderful light touch to the imperious but needy Madeleine, the woman keeping Jean. But ultimately everything spins around Audrey Tautou, and in this Holly Golightly-type role, she's not that other Audrey. Gorgeous, yes, but expressive, moody one moment, bright and perky the next—that's what's called for in this role, and Tautou approaches the character with expression A switching to expression A2. Competent enough, but she's an actress playing an actress, and just as her role as gold digger slips from time to time, so too does Tautou get snagged trying to shift gears smoothly from courtesan to coquette. Perhaps it's Amélie to blame after all: the world fell in love with her eyes in that movie, those big wide eyes with her irises as dark as her pupils, and the rapid pace, Paris scenery, and whimsy of Amélie kept me from realizing at first exactly how much she depends on acting with her eyes to the point where she's three or four flutters away from a Tex Avery cartoon.

Priceless


In the middle of a particularly lengthy Tautou optical performance, I caught myself wondering how a different actress—say, Virginie Ledoyen, Aure Atika, or Élodie Bouchez—would have portrayed this character. Mentally recasting the movie while your watching it is a little like putting that chair there and this one here on the deck of a ship...pretty harmless, yes, but distracting you from the iceberg—or film— at hand.

Subtract points as well for a pat and unconvincing ending...but really, I'm nitpicking at the fringe of a romantic comedy. It's all done with such a gentle touch that it can be forgiven. Despite coming to Priceless specifically for Audrey Tautou, I found myself enjoying it despite her.

Brainier than Sex and the City and Frenchier than Breakfast at Tiffany's, Priceless comes at the pleasant but distracting price of gazing into Audrey Tautou's big pool eyes, which ain't a bad thing on any day. But I look forward to seeing her someday in a role that calls for sunglasses most of the time to see her stretch chops other than her hyaloid. French Hollywood, it's time for an all-female remake of Reservoir Dogs, non?

Priceless


(Priceless is available on English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray.)

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