The belle boy

Audrey Tautou goes slumming in Hors de prix
Rating: 2.5 stars
April 9, 2008 10:42:03 AM

VIDEO: The trailer for Hors de prix|Priceless

Hors de prix|Priceless | Directed by Pierre Salvadori | Written by Benoît Graffin and Pierre Salvadori | with Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Mari-Christine Adam, Vernon Dobtcheff, Jacques Spiesser, and Annelise Hesme | Sam Goldwyn Films | French | 104 Minutes
Precious, rather than priceless, is the word that comes to mind when describing Audrey Tautou. She’s been a bit of a bauble and a blancmange since becoming one of the best-known French actresses after the success of Amélie. Which is a bit of a paradox, since “French actress” is usually synonymous with sexiness, and in just about every post-Amélie performance Tautou has been about as sexy as a Muppet. But maybe her neutering has been more a matter of typecasting than of erotic temperature. If Pierre Salvadori’s tawdry, sweet, ultimately glib romantic comedy Hors de prix has any value, it’s in demonstrating that all Tautou needed for a sizzling makeover was to change her hair style, lower her neckline, and play a slut.

Or, to be more precise, a golddigger, a woman of easy virtue with an eye for the high roller. Irène first appears on screen fumbling in a luxury hotel suite in Biarritz with long-in-the-tooth Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff), who’s the worse for the Champagne he’s been quaffing in celebration of her birthday. Abandoning her inert sugar daddy, Irène heads for the empty hotel bar, where she’s intrigued by Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a sleek-looking young man in a tuxedo passed out on the sofa next to a brandy snifter and a Havana cigar. She sees dollar, or rather Euro, signs, but she also senses something indefinable, a kinship perhaps. Besides, he mixes a great cocktail. In short, the perfect person with whom to spend a melancholy birthday — which they do in Jean’s room.

A year later, as in a fairy tale, she’s back with Jacques, and with an engagement ring on her finger. But Jean’s back too, and this time their tryst does not go unnoticed. Jacques throws her out, and the suddenly homeless Irène is at the mercy of her new love, who proves as big a con artist as herself — he’s just a bellboy who also walks guests’ dogs and fills in occasionally at the bar (hence his skill with the martini shaker).

That’s how Irène sees him, at any rate. In fact, he’s just a victim of mistaken identity who suffers the additional misfortune of falling in love. Elmaleh’s Jean is meek and nearly mute, his stoic but canny mien suggesting Buster Keaton more than Jerry Lewis. He identifies with the servant role completely — even when he’s taken for a guest at a hotel, he still automatically picks up luggage when he hears the desk clerk’s whistle. Maybe that’s why he surrenders so readily to Irène, serving as her pander and becoming a gigolo himself. Besides, the only real difference between a menial and a prostitute, it’s implied, is that the latter makes more money. “At last,” Irène observes when she learns of Jean’s success in his new profession, “we are equals.”

Is she worth the trouble? Salvadori doesn’t give Irène much of a backstory, but Tautou fills it in with a wilted ebullience, her joie de vivre dulled by diminished expectations. Both her spirit and her flesh are weak, but they’re equally appealing, and buoyed by a dominant will. Alas, Salvadori fails to capitalize on her potential — what could have been a Billy Wilder–like black comedy of morals and the lack thereof settles into a comfortable rom-com ripe for Hollywood remake. A small price to pay for Tautou’s career-vindicating performance.


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