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April 7, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | April 7, 2008 |

There’s an undercurrent of longing in Pierre Salvadori’s Priceless (Hors de Prix) that keeps it from becoming a sex farce or a stereotypical slapstick about mistaken identities and that manages to elevate it above the rest of the romantic comedy field. It’s not that the film uses the convoluted love story at its center to examine the human condition; if anything, the script from Salvadori and co-writer Benoit Graffin often finds excuses to skirt past the darker parts of the heart and wind up somewhere lighter and easier to watch. But it’s got a curious layer of grittiness underneath that lends some heft to the romance even as the film itself coasts along and, along with Salvadori’s refusal to get dragged down into the kind of hackneyed plot turns a film like this would almost seem to welcome, Priceless winds up being enjoyable and sweet even as it turns to realistic portrayals of longing and confusion for inspiration. The major story points and the ending are predictable, but never quite in the way you’d expect.

Jean (Gad Elmaleh) is an overworked bartender in a posh hotel in Biarritz, France, whose duties include everything from pouring drinks to walking dogs for the guests. Nodding off at his post one night in the bar, he falls asleep on a nearby couch and wakes to find Irene (Audrey Tautou). Irene is a high-price girlfriend to the much older Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff), who’s drunk and asleep in their suite, leaving the bored Irene to look for fun on her own. She discovers Jean and asks where the barman is, but Jean, who’s pretty much instantly smitten, pretends to be just another wealthy socialite staying at the hotel so he can spend time with Irene. Tautou has built a career as the kind of reliably spunky/cute heroine she plays here, but she also brings an air of resignation to the character, as if she’s long past caring about pretending to look like she’s doing anything else than siphoning the wealth off older men in return for sleeping with them. She and Elmaleh have an easy-going chemistry, aided by Elmaleh’s brilliantly casual physical comedy and the way he uses everything from the set of his shoulders to the furrow in his brow to convey infatuation, nervousness, and a mix of desperation at the lie he’s living and exhilaration at pulling it off.

They wind up doing their fair share of drinking before heading off to a randomly selected hotel room — it’s assumed that Jean has access to them all — to spend the night together. But it’s here that Salvadori flirts with sitcom-level misdirection before moving on to something more complex and rewarding. The whole movie could have been Jean’s efforts to appear rich and woo Irene while also working as a bartender and serving customers — a sort of The Secret of My Success on the Riviera — but Salvadori blows his cover and breezes right through the expected fight and into a whole new story about Jean’s attempts to win Irene back. He pursues her from Biarritz to Nice to apologize, showing up in a rumpled plaid shirt and battered jacket that says more about his middle-class status than any dialogue could convey.

It’s here that Priceless dips briefly into the longing fueling the respective leads and the genuine unhappiness they’re both struggling with, and the fact that these are handled so honestly while the film itself remains an often lighter than air romance is quite a feat. Irene first tries to shake Jean off by taking him for a ride to fancy restaurants and high-priced shops, and it hurts to see the way she digs at him and the way he empties his bank account just to keep up with her, thinking that one more bag or pair of shoes will somehow turn her around. Before Irene finally walks away, Jean holds up a single euro and asks for ten more seconds of her time; she takes it, and he just stares at her, and it’s more moving than it almost has a right to be.

But then — Salvadori goes through three set-ups before finally unveiling the core plot — Jean, bankrupt and unable to settle his hotel bill after a day with Irene, is picked up by the wealthy widow Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam), who’s looking for a boy toy to carry her bags and fulfill a variety of duties in exchange for trinkets like a nice watch or a refurbished wardrobe. Jean is understandably torn about sleeping with Madeleine to cover his bill when he’s still infatuated by Irene, who’s already found another rich old flounder at the hotel to buy her meals. He and Irene begin a complicated game of cat and mouse as they flirt with their respective backers and attempt to continue their quasi-romance while Irene teaches Jean a few tricks about seduction and Jean does his best to put them into practice. On one level, it’s a somewhat depressing idea — rich elderly striking an emotionless deal for sex with young hangers-on in exchange for sexual favors and a sublimation of their own will — but Salvadori and the gifted cast keep things moving so quickly that the film never has a chance to bog down or even think too hard about anything, instead content to float dreamily along on nothing more than charm.

And it works. Salvadori has created something light and engaging out of material that in clumsier hands could have been weighed down by its own inherently intricate story, and he’s found two perfect leads in Elmaleh and Tautou, who are winning and likeable and completely at ease. The film’s purported message is about love triumphing over materialism, but Salvadori only includes a moral out of token obedience to the genre. The whole point here is to create something beautiful but transient as the summer sun itself, and in that regard, Priceless is a total success.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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