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Pierre Salvadori's Hors de Prix (Priceless) promises, at the start, to proceed in the farcical direction taken by actor Gad Elmaleh's previous film, La Doublure (The Valet), but it soon reveals itself to be something else. But what? Not until the film is nearly over will the viewer realize that Hors de Prix is a very traditional fairy tale, fashioned of age-old ingredients (irresistible temptation and numbing enchantment) and the contemporary equivalent of the forest of Brocéliand. In a less successful movie, such prolonged uncertainty of tone would be the sign of directorial confusion, but here it betokens Mr Salvadori's narrative subtlety. Beneath a surface of glamour and expense so vivid that viewers themselves risk being spellbound, there pulses and adventure story worthy of Perrault.
We're introduced Jean (Mr Elmaleh) as he lurches inexplicably among promeneurs at a seaside resort. His quasi-military uniform contrasting with the vacationers' generally shambolic attire, Jean turns out to be a hotel worker walking a pack of dogs; the dogs do not regard him as their leader. Although Jean acquits himself of this duty without incident or repercussion, Mr Salvadori takes pains to illustrate the tenuousness of his position in the world. He is a nobody, less important than spoiled yapping pets. He bears his precariousness philosophically, but Mr Elmaleh's performances places Jean squarely in the tradition of humiliated film heroes that Charles Chaplin made world- famous. We cringe in our seats as the film appears to dare the world to do its worst to Jean.
But if Hors de Prix is not a farce, it isn't Modern Times, either. When Jean is discovered taking a most unauthorized snooze in the bar that he is paid to tend, the extinct stub of a Cuban cigar in one hand, it does not lead to job dismissal. On the contrary, it leads to a sort of temporary upgrade, as the tuxedo-clad young man impersonates the hotel guest who gave him the cigar and insisted that he share a brandy. Irène (Audrey Tautou), the young woman who, abandoned on her birthday by her elderly, intoxicated lover, Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff), has come down to the bar looking for a few crumbs of festivity, only to find a solitary sleeper, is easily convinced that Jean is a jet-setting millionaire. As a barman pretending to be a millionaire pretending to be a barman, Jean mixes a series of potions for Irène, and Irène gamely ornaments her hair with the little paper umbrellas that garnish the drinks. After five or six of these concoctions, looking something like a madcap geisha, Irène embraces Jean and asks him to take her to his room. Jean, of course, happens to have access to the Imperial Suite, which he happens to know is empty. In the morning, he awakes alone; Irène and her boyfriend have taken off for the next watering-hole.
A year goes by. Irène reappears, and leads Jean through a reprise of their night of love. This time, however, when Irène slips away at dawn to rejoin Jacques, she finds that he has seen her making out in the bar, and is not happy about it. He is in fact unhappy enough to leave Irène high and dry, with nothing but a backpack and the clothes she's wearing. Flying to her other millionaire's arms, Irène scrambles back to the Imperial Suite, where the break of the day brings an end — amusing for us, but not for the new lovers — to Jean's deception.
Transformed by this turn of events into a brassy and unsentimental working girl, Irène berates Jean for interfering with her marriage plans and promptly leaves town. Thus begins Jean's adventure in Castle Perilous, a/k/a Monte Carlo. After the second night together, and knowing that Irène has no better protector, Jean does not let her disappear. He tracks Irène down on the Côte d'Azur, and begins what threatens to be an agonizingly self-destructive attempt to maintain his lady-love (who treats him like dirt while accepting his favors) in the style to which she would like to be accustomed. It does not take him very long to exhaust his resources, and just when we're wondering if he's about to be carted off to debtors' prison, Jean is "saved" by a wealthy widow, Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam). In this utterly unexpected way, the film transforms Jean into Irène's colleague. Although she won't give him the time of day as a man, Irène is full of advice for a co-worker. Jean learns his lessons so well that he is soon sporting a thirty-thousand-Euro Jacque LeCoultre watch.
By now, Irène has sunk her jaws into a new prospect, a "temporary" companion, Gilles (Jacques Spiesser) — a man who has been married and divorced too many times to have much of a fortune to call his own. Emboldened by her unforeseen role as Jean's tutor, she is thrilled when he coaxes a scooter out of Madeleine, because this will make it possible for him to take her to the beach for a midnight swim. No reader of Manon Lescaut will fail to shudder at the sheer recklessness of Irène's now-innocent friendship with Jean. The question is not if but when they will be caught in a moment of intimacy that no paying customer could be expected to tolerate.
Hors de Prix moves confidently from farce to romantic comedy before landing sweetly in romance. Bittersweetly, perhaps. Gilles is far too three-dimensional not to care about, even if he is somewhat shapeless and unimaginative; and, as for Madeleine, Ms Adam gives her character everything she's got, carrying us very near to another movie altogether, one about a very handsome middle-aged woman, reminiscent of Lauren Bacall (in English) and Kristen Scott Thomas (in either language), who is trying to hold on to a gentle but distracted young man with very soulful eyes. Madeleine is not quite the Marschallin, but she does manage to make her rupture with Jean look more like a renunciation than a dismissal. At the same time, she is clearly a sorceress capable of tempting Jean to a perdition of comfort and pleasure. To Jean, however, she is an ordeal that he must somehow negotiate if he is to win Irène. The final step of this ordeal, demanding total sacrifice, is worthy of the very best romances.
Matching, even upstaging the glamorous setting of Hor de Prix is a performance by Audrey Tautou that I've been waiting to see. Her allure for once unclouded by tics of the gamine or the neurotic, the actress plays to perfection the enchanted princess who waits for her hardened heart to be awakening by love. One of Ms Tautou's great gifts is her knack for bestowing an aura of plausibility on almost any man; no matter how fetchingly she's turned out, the sincerity of her affectionate interest is never open to question. In Mr Elmaleh she may have met the perfect counterpart. Mr Elmaleh combines the unaffectedness of the boy next door with glimpses of surprising strengths; his repertoire of adroitly understated comic gestures harmonizes appealingly with the salience of formidable personal integrity. Pierre Salvadori deploys his luxurious backdrops to such satisfying effect that, by the end of the picture, the sheer pennilessness of his young lovers seems not only virtuous but advantageous. It doesn't hurt that Jean gets to keep the scooter. "You've earned it," Madeleine says, as she turns her back on him forever. (April 2008)
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