Saturday, 5 May 2007

Priceless (Hors de prix) (2006)

Gold diggers in Paris!

The fact is, Hollywood just can't make good romantic comedies, and making things even worse for movie audiences over the past 2 years, Hollywood has developed an obsession with remaking romantic comedies from the 1950s, despite no longer having the directorial, screenwriting, and acting talent to pull off this genre. It takes someone like the French to prove my point, though. Priceless is a modern entry into one of the oldest subgenres of the romantic comedy that Hollywood made in its Golden Age, between the 1930s and 1940s. You know, the type of romantic comedy fronted by frank, strong-willed, worldly, roguish (even bad) female leads, who would be nothing like the squeaky clean, wallflower decorative "romantic interest" types of later and lesser Hollywood fare. I'm talking in particular about the society comedy popular in the 1930s that portrayed the world of dating and marriage as a cynical game played by gold-diggers of both sexes, of course, with the lead roles played with fiesty abandon by the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Barbara Stanwyck. It is, as you may guess, an incredibly tough act to follow, and one wonders if Audrey Tatou, queen of the quirky French romantic comedy genre, can fill their boots, or whether the French screenwriters can recreate the old genre competently...

But yet it works: Audrey Tatou is convincing as Irene, a hard-nosed modern gold-digger, living off a succession of high society geriatrics because she loves fine clothing, haute cuisine, living for months in hotels, and getting really pampered. One gathers that a creature like her would be at the top of her game, but she makes the error one night of mistaking Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a sad sack but strangely charismatic (think a more subtle Nic Cage) barman at the hotel for a millionaire (whereas he makes the error of using his access to the Presidential suite for their after-drinks activities). It's a colossal blunder for both parties: Irene is cast off by her soon-to-be geriatric husband, while Jean decides to make it up to her by spending the rest of the day and night with her... which amounts to breaking his bank account, of course. And thus pauperised (not that he was anywhere comfortable in his finances to begin with) and reduced to a needy state, it becomes almost natural that high society widow Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) would mistake the impeccably behaved and servile barman as a male gold-digger and keep him as her toy boy...

From a setup like that, I think it's safe to say that the script delivers what is expected: much of the comedy after the initial set-up involves the initiation of the shy bachelor into the world of gold-digging, his learning (or rather, fumbling) at the ropes, and his persistent vying for the attention and love of Irene, even though he now knows she's basically an old-fashioned, pre-Code gold-digging hussy. What's interesting is that the scriptwriters and director have resisted the typical modern Hollywood urge to turn this into a self-satisfied, moralising "redemption of the golddigger" comedy, and instead indulge in the wicked fun of portraying the modern dating scene (albeit high society) as a cynical game for rich willing fools buying the attention of their trophy boyfriends and girlfriends with expensive gifts. Priceless, like the great society comedies of Hollywood's golden age, doesn't give a damn about being politically correct; I haven't seen a crooked and corrupt protagonists (Irene, and the steadily corrupted Jean) in a judgement-free movie for a long time!

What Pierre Salvadori brings to this update of a very old genre is also unexpected. Even though the movie is about gold-diggers in high society, Salvadori's direction ensures that deafest of viewers will not miss the undercurrents of his critique of the class divide, and the excesses of conspicuous consumption that an accelerating class divide would generate. Through a moment here and there, a camera focussing on waiters, maids, and counter staff, the director ensures that even while you're laughing at the movie's physical comedy, its digs at the dating scene, you'd never quite be able to escape - quite like how the gold-diggers will never really escape - the entire inequality and social tensions that underpin the premise of this comedy. Priceless is a remarkable and understated achievement for the director, but I just want to make clear that he has make the golden age shine once again.

First published at incinemas on 10 May 2007

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