At times of lavish plenty by the very few, can mutual self-whoring be considered a romantic gesture? Director Pierre Salvadori, the confectioner of such fluff as 2003’s Apres Vous and ’05’s more acerbic Les Apprentis, brings that bizarre notion to wonderfully ribald life in Priceless, a romantic comedy wrapped in a class study that is all wound around the seething disgust that when so few have so much, the have-nots do just about anything for just a little bit. That it’s driving motive is the unassailable assumption that an average bloke would literally do anything to make Audrey Tautou happy doesn’t hurt, either.
Reed thin and alluringly couture clad, Tautou’s Irène is a gold-digger summering in Biarritz, working the wealthy gray-haired Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff) for all that his credit cards can afford in hopes of an eventual engagement that will leave her set up for life. On her birthday eve, though, he drinks too much and passes out, leaving her all dressed up with no place to go.
Very late that evening she wanders downstairs, where hotel bartender Jean (Gad Elmaleh), tired from his busy afternoon of dog walking for the wealthy and overtanned, has passed out on a sofa after an older guest treated the young man to an exceptional cigar. Irène mistakes the tuxedo-clad Jean for a successful businessman, which he doesn’t correct--especially when he leads her up to an unbooked suite for the night.
Irène and Jacques vanish the next morning, only to reappear a year later, when Jean plays the same gambit with the same results. Unfortunately, Jacques catches Irène and sends her packing, and she flees to Jean, who is forced to confess his true employment. Cue bitter parting.
All of the above, though, happens within Priceless’ first 15 minutes or so. The remainder of the movie finds Jean chasing Irène to Nice, spending everything--checking and savings accounts, retirements funds, etc.--on her lifestyle whims for what amounts to one day, and becoming the boy toy to sugar momma Madeleine (the elegant Marie-Christine Adam) himself. It’s little more that a twist-of-fate plot machination, but it’s enough to let Priceless show these two mutual deceivers that they have more in common than they ever knew.
And it’s in this kooky middle that Priceless somehow becomes its most engaging: Irène quickly ascertains what Jean has gotten himself into and starts coaching him on the finer points of playing the gamine hustler to win devotion in kind--a new wardrobe, a 30,000-euro jeweled watch, a scooter. And in their mutual scheming, they fall in love—or something quite like it.
If that narrative vector sounds cheesy, it may very well be meant to. Director Salvadori and his co-writer Benoît Graffin don’t give Irène and Jean much to be happy about outside the possibility of each other. Jean is so conditioned to serve the rich clients of these hotels that he inadvertently picks up a woman’s bags when the concierge claps his hands, and he’s too professionally obedient to bridle when dog owners address their questions to their pets instead of him. Irène, meanwhile, is a stuffy in lonely opportunism, the downside of trying to be a rich man’s arm candy not measured by what she has to do when with him but by the moments when she’s another one of his lovely, handsomely paid for objects: cold calling numbers in her address book fishing for a older man willing to bite, spending an entire day by the pool because her current mark has left her, living out of a suitcase stashed in a train station locker. And it’s telling about their personal lives that while they’re both entangled with their moneyed procurers and stealing away time to be with each other, neither has a home to miss, parents or friends to call, any trappings of a grounded life, basically, from which their presence is missed.It helps that two leads gamely give these drifting souls a guarded vulnerability. Tautou turns her entire adorable screen persona over to a womanly performance designed for the express purpose of milking what she wants from a man, from widening those doe eyes to the size of dinner plates and slinking around in dresses that plunge to below the sternum and the lower back to making every rehearsed anecdote and observation feel spontaneously seductive for the man in her sights. Elmelah, purely on his performance here and in recent comedies such as The Valet and Chouchou, is a gifted physical comedy actor, only not in the pratfall sense. His comedy is that of the awkward moment, clumsy effort, and anxious pause, and watching Elmelah’s Jean--a man so infatuated with Irène he spends the last euro in his pocket just to spend 10 more seconds in her company--become a skillful, willful, and scheming identity shifter over the course of Priceless’ 104 minutes is a delight of subtle character nuance.
That performance is about the only aspect of the movie that is so finely understated, as it’s a broad comedy that aims for--and hits--droll and opportunistic jokes with the consistency of a skilled archer. So what if it eventually becomes fairy-tale frippery by its end? Fattening comedies are rarely filled with such cynical and bitter cream.