A gold digger on the French Riviera unexpectedly meets her match in a mild-mannered bartender in “Priceless.” Bittersweet comedy’s perfectly chosen multigenerational cast ably demonstrates that if money can’t buy love, it sure can purchase lots of obsequious service from four-star hotel staffers and costly goodies from laughably pricey boutiques. Co-scripter/helmer Pierre Salvadori serves up an enjoyable riff on genuine romance versus the pay-as-you-go variety, in crowd-pleasing, exportable pic.
Audrey Tautou had only a few days between wrapping “The DaVinci Code” and reporting to this set, where her comparatively plausible, mercenary-yet-vulnerable character may have crosses to bear (What’s better, the $300 bra or the $275 panties?) but needn’t fear homicidal albino monks.
Versatile Gad Elmaleh’s gift for sly physical comedy and winning facial expressions is deftly exploited in his perf as Biarritz hotel employee Jean. In opening scenes, Jean fills in as a dog walker on the luxurious waterfront — a handy device for introducing a sphere where any given pooch has a ritzier life than most humans could ever dream of.
Hard-working and discreet, Jean covers so often for co-workers that he has to fight to stay awake at his primary gig behind a classy hotel bar.
Free-spending sylph Irene (Tautou) enters the bar after her sixtysomething sugar daddy Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff) conks out in their room instead of celebrating her birthday. Through an amusing set of circumstances, Irene mistakes Jean for a wealthy client and senses an opportunity to trade up to someone closer to her own age.
Without a speck of vulgarity, Irene and Jean end up spending the night in the hotel’s royal suite. When the next morning reveals that Jean is closer to farcically poor than fabulously rich, the pragmatic Irene registers her mistake and moves on, but Jean is smitten.
A year later, Irene returns to the hotel with Jacques, but the embers with Jean are still smoldering. Out on her ear when Jacques correctly assesses the situation, Irene resents having to work at bagging another gullible geezer to bankroll her complete existence.
Relocating to Nice, she wipes out the complicit and lovesick Jean in retaliation. (“I don’t even really like caviar, but I’m forcing myself,” Irene announces, mid-mouthful, to soon-to-be-broke Jean.)
But the exquisitely set tables are turned when well-preserved and loaded widow Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) mistakes incredulous Jean for a practiced gigolo.
Enjoying the best accommodations Monte Carlo has to offer, Irene — now on the arm of pudgy Gilles (Jacques Spiesser) — tutors Jean in how to milk Madeleine for all she’s worth. But, although they won’t admit it, student and teacher would really rather have each other than cascading luxury goods.
With an attention to wardrobe and accessories that’s a language unto itself, pic employs acerbic humor to paint a landscape in which everything can be bought or sold and authentic emotion is a professional impediment.
Delicate ellipses spare us the sight of young flesh servicing old. Salvadori shows us instead what can be shown: caviar and champagne, sumptuous lobbies, bespoke wardrobes and dreamy scenery.
Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” pioneered this template in 1932, but helmer provides a better-than-average update whose morally queasy elements are mostly eluded via dandy thesping. In addition to appealing leads, Adam is particularly touching as a woman who is lucid about being appreciated for her checkbook rather than her other attributes.
Sun-drenched lensing and peppy score keep any hint of sordidness at bay.