Almost any filmmaker knows the basic ingredients that go into a cinematic soufflé, but only the French know exactly how long to cook one. The proof is in “Priceless,” which would feel abridged if it were much shorter and drawn out if it were longer.
The comedy, which verges on farce from time to time, also has the smilingly cynical approach to romance that we identify with the French.
A penniless fool pursues a golddigger (to give her the politest form of address) with the idea that she'll love him if he's sufficiently devoted to her. An American movie would insist love conquers all, but director Pierre Salvadori (who wrote the script with Benoît Graffin) leaves us with an ending we can read as we like. Even the cinematography by Gilles Henry adds to the ambiguity: You decide for yourself whether the exotic locations look enticingly beautiful or glossily unreal.
Jean (Gad Elmaleh) works as a bartender/dogwalker at a resort hotel. He's standing in an empty lounge one night when Irène (Audrey Tautou) slinks in, bored because the elderly man who's keeping her has fallen asleep. She mistakes Jean for a guest and is charmed when he slips behind the bar to mix a drink. They talk, laugh, go upstairs to a vacant suite for l'amour.
Her sugar daddy finds out and dumps her, so she turns to Jean. He spends his life savings on her, but she moves on when he goes broke. She has pity, however, and teaches him the techniques of a successful gigolo. Sure enough, bored socialite Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) starts paying his bills. Now Irène (who's found another rich guy) and Jean enter a good-natured, informal competition, realizing that their attraction to each other may queer their mutual deals.
Tautou conquered the film world in 2001 with “Amélie,” playing a shy, naïve girl. She's assembled an impressive body of work (see “Dirty Pretty Things,” where she played an abused Turkish immigrant in London), and her Irène is a complicated mix of frankness, sweetness and calculation.
Elmaleh, the son of a mime, is an adept physical comedian with a long and flexible face; he can seem pathetically hangdog or attractive in an angular way, as folks who saw him in “The Valet” can attest.
Both Salvadori and Elmaleh come from North Africa, where France was an imperialist power for decades. (Salvadori was born in Tunisia, Elmaleh in Morocco).
So you can read the film as two colonials' attempt to “conquer” the homeland of France, symbolized as always by a beautiful and perhaps unreachable woman. Whether or not you do, their contributions to the film suggest nationalism is a state of mind now, rather than a geographic location. In their way, the African expats are as “French” as Beaumont-born Tautou.