Friday, April 4, 2008

“Priceless,” which centers on a woman who makes her living dating rich men and the impoverished man who loves her but ends up becoming her “colleague,” will inevitably be compared with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Like the exclusive south-of-France resorts in which the French flick takes place, though, “Priceless” is in a class of its own.

Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) is Irene, a beautiful courtesan who leads a comfortable but sometimes frustrating existence as the companion to Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff), a rich older man. When he passes out drunk on her birthday, she spends the evening watching TV before heading down to the hotel bar for a drink.

She finds Jean (Gad Elmaleh), the bartender, fast asleep on a couch. She doesn’t know he’s the barkeep, though, and when he awakens to the sight of this gorgeous creature, he doesn’t bother to fill her in. They share a memorable evening together — and, as a birthday present to herself, Irene seduces Jean. The shy bartender is unwilling to make the first move, which intrigues Irene all the more. “You must be terribly rich,” she says. “You let others do all the work.”

She returns to Jacques, but repeats the experience with Jean a year later. This time, Jacques catches her and takes back the engagement ring he’s just given her.

Irene doesn’t miss a beat. She finds Jean and says she’s left everything for him. When she finds out he’s an employee, not a guest, of the hotel, she’s understandably angry: “I was set up for life,” she whines.

With nowhere to go, Irene heads back to work. Leaving Biarritz for Nice, the smitten Jean on her tail, Irene makes it clear that catching a husband is a full-time job. First, though, she punishes Jean for ruining her meal ticket. Emptying his bank account in a shopping spree, Irene lands Jean in a bit of hot water. However, when a rich, older woman bails him out and he suddenly finds himself in Irene’s line of work, the stage is set for some delightful high jinks.

Jean is unaccustomed to the gigolo life and can’t believe his luck, but Irene is unimpressed. “That’s all?” she asks when she learns the woman’s bought him four shirts and a pair of jeans. “I had a great breakfast,” he defensively responds. Soon, she’s teaching him the tricks of the trade. Jean’s a quick study — but he never becomes so enamored of the good life that he forgets his feelings for Irene.

Mr. Elmaleh showed American audiences his gift for farce with last year’s French import “The Valet.” He’s just as winning here, and he also has real chemistry with Miss Tautou. With her perfect body showed off to great effect in expensive, cut-down-to-there dresses, it’s no wonder he’s immediately in love.

Director Pierre Salvadori and his co-writer Benoit Graffin may be men, but they’ve captured perfectly the heady highs and the desolate downturns of the life of a kept woman. Their sparkling script, the witty performances and the fabulous clothes all combine to make a delightful film that rivals even a classic.


TITLE: “Priceless” (“Hors de prix”)

RATING: PG-13 (sexual content including nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Pierre Salvadori. Written by Mr. Salvadori and Benoit Graffin (in French with English subtitles)

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes



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