07 October 2008

À quelle prix l'amour?

Ah, French films. Nothing like a bit of subtitling, eh? They give you the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of your fading high school language lab skills, and you come away with the impression that a film of middling quality gained a soupcon of sophistication, exoticism and gravitas thanks to the ever-present sans serif blanc flickering at the bottom of the screen. The cinema could be rented out en masse for a Deaf Association evening and it would make little difference, apart from missing out on the cheeky Gallic tunes that bounce with bossanova urges or sway with chanteuse-y sexuality.

French films are the staple of most film festivals, because they're a seldom-seen treat and a welcome antidote to the drudge-work of generic Hollywood fare, even when the French films in question are following the same genres as their LA-grounded brethren. This is because France, a nation of philosophy graduates, still holds the notion of the cinematic auteur in high regard, despite the brutal reality of 21st century film-making rendering the economics of the model troublesome at the very least. Witness the challenges faced when Hollywood money and the influences it brings are circumvented: the massive European co-production of the Stalingrad siege epic Enemy At The Gates, (2001) starring Jude Law as the least butch Soviet soldier ever, or the similarly scattershot potpourri of Astérix Aux Jeux Olympiques from earlier this year, featuring cameos by Michael Schumacher, Zinedine Zidane and Amelia Mauresmo.

Euro-blockbusters are unlikely to conquer the world; cosmopolitanism doesn't play in the Megaplex in Peoria, Illinois. But when French filmmakers stick to their strengths, keep the budgets manageable, and invoke the great Gallic traditions of film farce, they can consistently keep the viewers interested. This is particularly the case in the English-speaking world where such films are lapped up by those of us with Arts degrees and a penchant for emerging from a cinema with a self-satisfied sense of sophistication-by-proxy and infused with the romance of the French idyll as laid out on the big screen.

Of course, film scholars will say that the art of the French farce has been in decline since the peerless works of Jacques Tati, whose silent film comedies of the 1950s, Les Vacances De Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958) defined the genre, and later helped to make Rowan Atkinson very rich indeed by providing the lion's share of the inspiration for his Mr Bean character.

But the last ten years has seen a steady stream of quality middle-of-the-road French farces, and if they're not of the same exemplary Tati quality, they have still entertained and showcased French talent. Key among these offerings are the 'Francois Pignon' films:

- Le Diner Du Cons / The Dinner Game (1998)
- Le Placard / The Closet (2001)
- La Doublure / The Valet (2006)
- L'Emmerdure / A Pain In The Ass (to be released Dec 2008)

...so called because the lead character in Francis Veber's comedies always has the same name. Friendly-faced Daniel Auteuil often crops up in these.

And that's where Hors De Prix (Priceless, 2006) comes along. In La Doublure, the hapless valet who has to pretend to date a gorgeous supermodel (Alice Taglioni) to save the marriage of a rich politician (Auteuil) is played by Moroccan-born everyman Gad Elmaleh. And wouldn't you know it, in Hors De Prix Elmaleh plays... Jean, a hotel waiter pining for the attention of a luscious gold-digger. So far, so the same.

It doesn't take a European Space Agency rocket scientist fresh from the jungles of Guiana to work out that the gold-digger in question is played by a beautiful French actress. But the producers have gone all out on this particular femme fatale, because Irène is played by none other than the luminously beatific Audrey Tautou, she of elfin charms who captured the hearts of cinema-goers worldwide in Amelie (2001) with such an intensely popular performance that the streets of English-speaking middle-class suburbs are now littered with little girls bearing the name, having been christened in her honour. Moving on from being cast as a generic girlfriend in L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment, 2002) and the stultifying nonsense of The Da Vinci Code cash-in, here Tautou is in her element.

The plot of the comedy is hardly revolutionary: gold-digger Irène, in Biarritz and on the make, mistakes shy waiter Jean for a multi-millionaire; Jean falls madly in love with her despite not being able to foot the bills for her platinum card shopping habits. Cursing her error, Irène moves on to her next target, but Jean is determined. He has a stroke of luck in his campaign to win Irène's heart when he stumbles into the role of kept man for a handsome widow with expensive tastes and a few years on the clock. Irène's impressed, and teaches Jean the tricks of the trade - the art of conversational seduction. You can see where this is going... and there's no surprises when we arrive at the inevitable happy ending.

It would be foolish to ignore the qualities Tautou brings to the role. Aside from her acting chops she is also absolutely stunning in every scene. Seriously, I mean it. Wearing the most remarkable of couture and with a look that could floor any straight male within a hundred paces with the merest glance, Tautou has had a film built around her - every shot is designed to make sure we know that she is the epitome of wily feminine perfection. Seldom has anyone approached the rarified blend of beauty, grace and humour of the timeless Audrey Hepburn, but give Tautou more roles like this one, and she'll definitely come close.

Aside from the magnetic Tautou presence and the warm everyman charms of Elmaleh, the film handles the knockabout comedy role with aplomb. In the funniest scene, the newly-confident Jean struts up to the restaurant table at which Irène is entertaining her wealthy elderly businessman suitor and asks the fellow for a light, and in the gesture prominently displays the diamond-encrusted wristwatch that his mistress-patron has just bought him for the princely sum of 30,000 euros, causing Irène to splutter into her bouilliabase with admiration. In lesser hands, this would be an indictment of fickle, pointless consumerism. But in this mythical land of wealth and privilege, Jean shows Irène that he's her equal, and from then on a golden sunset finish is surely just around the corner.

Normally this sort of formulaic silliness irritates me, but it's hard to be a stickler when a film is as much fun as Hors De Prix. There are no heavy moral considerations at work here either - the fact that Irène and Jean are both selling themselves is not the point. This is fantasy at work, and the sumptuous revelry of the super-chic resorts of Biarritz and Nice lulls the viewer into a dreamy reverie, lost in the idle lifestyles of the rich and beautiful living the sophisticated party lifestyle and finding true love in a make-believe world of blue skies and never-ending sunshine as the gentle wafting breeze floats in from the languid Mediterranean and makes everything perfect in the end. Vive l'amour!

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