Since her fabulous success in “Amelie” in 2001, Audrey Tautou has been unsure how to capitalize on her charm and talent without seeming to replay the same character. She made a few French films, including “A Very Long Engagement,” which reunited her with her “Amelie” director. She sampled British filmmaking (“Dirty Pretty Things”) and even an overblown American production, “The Da Vinci Code,” where she was bleached of all personality. Surely that was not the solution to her quest.
Now, at last, she has found her best post-“Amelie” success with “Priceless,” a sunny French romantic farce in which she plays a pixie-ish gold digger. All characters played by Tautou will be pixie-ish, of course; it’s the fact that this one’s a gold digger that makes her noteworthy. Directed and co-written (with Benoit Graffin) by Pierre Salvadori (“Apres Vous”), “Priceless” is light and fluffy enough to compare favorably with “Amelie.” It’s often very funny, too.
Tautou plays Irene, a woman who enjoys — nay, requires — the finer things in life but will not — nay, cannot — acquire them the normal way, i.e., by getting a job and saving up to buy them. Instead, she uses her smashing good looks and considerable charm to woo wealthy man, usually older than herself, and extract lavish gifts from them. She sticks around until the trinkets and baubles dry up, or until the guy wises up and dumps her. Her ultimate goal is to marry one of these fools and be set for life. The difference between Irene and a common prostitute is purely semantical.
At a posh hotel in the south of France, she meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a porter whom she initially mistakes for a millionaire. (Imagine her delight: This guy’s actually her own age and actually kind of handsome! She will be the envy of all her gold digger friends.) Jean realizes her error and plays it up for as long as he can; fortunately, the movie only dabbles in the comedy of that mistaken identity for a few minutes before moving on. Jean is deeply smitten with Irene, so much that even after she realizes he’s poor and is angry at him for wasting her time, he continues to gladly bankrupt himself just to be with her. At one point he offers her a one-euro coin for 10 seconds of her time. He spends the 10 seconds gazing at her with huge love-struck eyes.
In the midst of trying to woo Irene the honest, non-monetary way (which is a losing battle), Jean finds himself the object of someone else’s affection: Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam), a wealthy widow of a certain age. She will gladly supply him with expensive clothes and watches in exchange for being her arm candy. The two are encamped at a hotel on the French Riviera, with Irene and her latest conquest at the place across the street. Irene and Jean meet regularly on the sly — first so that she can give him gold-digging tips, and eventually because she’s realizing her fondness for him.
A story like this must be told in a light, barely two-dimensional fashion, as too much reality or seriousness would bring the unsavory aspects of Irene’s lifestyle to light. Salvadori maintains just the right tone, always subtly reminding us that it’s meant as a merry farce, nothing more. (The film bears some superficial resemblance to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” enhanced by certain writers’ frequent assertions that Tautou is the modern-day Audrey Hepburn, but “Priceless” is a different animal altogether.) My only major quibble is with Irene’s somewhat inscrutable character. She cruelly bankrupts Jean as punishment for pretending to be rich, then seems to hate him, then takes him under her wing as a gold-digger-in-training, then is jealous at how quickly he adapts to it. We’re clearly working toward the inevitable moment when she’ll decide to be with him even if it means being poor, but in the meantime it’s hard to tell what her thoughts are.
Nonetheless, Tautou and Gad Elmaleh are a delightful pair of likable French performers. Tautou can be sexy and ridiculous at the same time — no mean feat — and Elmaleh, whose father was a mime, has a gift for subtle physical comedy: a facial expression here, a double take there. Their chemistry together is more whimsical than smoldering, like two kids on a play date.
In fact, the whole film has a certain chasteness to it. Sex is part of the gold-digging lifestyle, but Salvadori never shows it — again, wisely keeping the story from becoming mired in unappealing realities. It has the feel of a classic French farce, and it’s as cute and upbeat as a comedy set on the French Riviera ought to be.
B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; French with subtitles; )