“Hors De Prix” is Priceless

Just another day in the life . . .

I didn’t realize until halfway through this 2006 French film (starring Audrey Tautou and Gad Elmaleh) that it was based on the famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s of 1961. Audrey Hepburn made an indelible impression in that film directed by Blake Edwards as the whimsical, easy-to-like Holly Golightly whose vague, posh lifestyle is underwritten by older men in return for her favors.

Tautou improves on Hepburn’s performance, giving her character of Irène more life, street smarts, and even irritating us with her constant need for couture and gems. Hepburn was invariably amiable. We like Hepburn, but feel helpless – even if we could shake her, would she understand? Tautou understands, all right, but she’s amoral. She’s got savvy and flair, yet is still capable of making embarrassingly stupid mistakes in her search for wealth and influence. She’s far more human than Hepburn, even if more calculating.

Gad Elmaleh plays Jean, the part that in the 1961 film was taken by George Peppard. As a helpless romantic, he has a quiet innocence that evokes Mr. Bean, but unlike him, Jean can be educated. He’s working at a Cannes hotel when he runs into Irène, who believes him to be wealthy. Her current sugar daddy is elderly, generous, but no fun at all. So she goes after Jean with as little soul-searching as she’d choose an apple. When daylight enters (literally) and she discovers she’s hooked up with the bellman, she’s outraged – and in trouble.

Gold-digger Irène – in French, she’s known as a carte bleue for the credit card – spends a morose scene running through her little black book in search of the next man. But the next man turns out to be Jean. He has no money, no influence, no property. She’s a fool for even talking to him. Yet they recognize the familiar in each other.

Under Irène’s tutelage, and because he’s been fired, Jean soon finds a wealthy older woman to bankroll him. Yet he’s drawn to Irène – in fact, loves her – for reasons he can’t fathom. Maybe it’s her courage and persistent good spirits. Perhaps it’s her willingness to teach him the art of being a carte bleue. Maybe it’s the great sex. Whatever the motives, he and Irène keep returning to each other despite the revolving door of others, and in the end, it’s just the two of them heading down the road – on a motorcycle.

Tautou and Elmaleh are brilliantly matched as the striving Irène and the devoted Jean. Their acting is lovely to watch, so beautifully paced against each other, and comic highs are pitch-perfect. The film is set against the natural beauty of the French Riviera – what’s not to like? – accompanied by sumptuous rooms, haute couture and expensive cars. For a romantic comedy that morphs into morality play, Hors de Prix (Priceless) is darn near perfect.

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