Friday, December 5, 2008

Priceless (France 2 Cinéma and others, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I planned to go the library for the movie and it proved to be a good one even though it was hardly the film promised by the blurb: Priceless, a 2006 French production starring Audrey Tautou (who seems to have taken over from Gerard Depardieu as the French actor whom their government stipulates must be in every movie made there) as Irène, the sort of woman who in 1930’s Warners movies would have been called a gold-digger: she latches on to wealthy men and offers them her body and her companionship in exchange for every material item — dresses, jewelry, fancy meals and whatnot — she can get out of them. The film takes place at a variety of upscale French hostelries and begins with her latching on to Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a rather nondescript though not unattractive young man who’s really a bellboy but whom she takes for someone with money — and takes, and takes, and takes until his meager savings are utterly exhausted and he’s stuck with a room and food bill he couldn’t pay in 100 years.

Just then Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) a middle-aged blonde with a striking resemblance to Lauren Bacall, picks up Jean when he hears the desk clerk calling to a bellboy to pick up her bags and, on instinct, he snaps to and starts to get them. She’s a wealthy female looking for a young boy-toy, and when the two of them stroll off together the desk clerk calls the manager and tells him to put the bill for his room onto hers. Meanwhile, Irène has latched onto her own alternate pigeon, Gilles (Jacques Spiesser), though she keeps running into Jean at the hotel (and at various other hotels, because at some point I didn’t really pick up on — mainly because all these overstuffed hostelries looked pretty much the same to me — the action moved from the Provence region of France to Biarritz to Monaco) and giving him tips on the sex-for-money business, which seems so universal in this movie that at times it looks like everyone in that particular hotel is either a sex worker or a client.

Dumped by Gilles when he catches her making out with Jean on a balcony, Irène hatches a plot to entrap a prince as her next customer, and to do this Jean has to fake an assignation with Irène’s friend (and the prince’s former pay-for-play flame) Agnès (Annelise Hesme), which in turns blows it between Jean and Madeleine — but at the end the two penniless young lovers drive off in a scooter that’s the last remaining bit of the proceeds of Jean’s coupling with Madeleine and they desperately fish their pockets, purses and other receptacles to find the one-euro coin they need to pay the toll on a bridge … The End. Priceless is one of those delicate little French comedies in which the end is one you can see a mile away (just as most of the similar screwball farces in 1930’s Hollywood ended with the penniless young would-be gold-diggers turned lovers together and not worried about their financial futures because they had Love) but what’s good about it is the subtlety of the gags and the sophistication of the wit (there’s one scene in which Irène has to sneak out her room with Gilles and she’s waiting for him to fall asleep, and the only way she’s able to get him to sleep is to have sex with him first — I told you this was a French comedy!).

I’ve noted before how the French admiration for Jerry Lewis seems even more incomprehensible in light of the subtlety and wit of their own comedies, and Priceless is an example (though there’s one scene, in which Madeleine returns unexpectedly to the room she’s renting for herself and Jean while Irène is there and the film briefly turns into a French farce as they play dodge-’em around the room) — plus it’s an absolutely lovely film visually, filled with all the colors of the rainbow (not just green and brown as are all too many films these days) and a quite interesting visual effect in which cinematographer Gilles Henry keeps the principals in crisp focus in the foreground while the background blurs out into an approximation of an impressionistic painting, which gives the film a soupçon of visual elegance that adds to its overall appeal and offers an artistic use of color far beyond what we usually get in American films these days!