"Priceless" is a bauble - an art-house diamond made of paste that somehow still gives you good glimmer for the money. If you think about the movie for even a minute, you'll realize you've been had. If you sink into it like a hot bath, you may end up sighing with pleasure.
Directed by Pierre Salvadori (a step up from 2003's scattered farce "Apres Vous"), "Priceless" is set in Biarritz and the high-rolling tourist towns of the Cote d'Azur. The luxury accommodations are the movie's real star, laid out before us like lifestyle porn.
Sex and money, it turns out, are the movie's driving forces. Jean, played by the sweetly deadpan Gad Elmaleh ("The Valet"), is a hotel employee and all-purpose doormat who falls hard when a gold digger named Irene (Audrey Tautou) mistakenly assumes he's a rich man. Their whirlwind romance, heavy on the hormones, screeches to a halt when her current catch (Vernon Dobtcheff) catches them and dumps her.
She flees to Nice; a fool in love, Jean gives chase and spends everything he has on her. So far, not so good: Elmaleh's such a charmer that you feel for Jean as Irene takes him to the cleaners. Tautou is lovely to behold poured into those backless dresses, but she's a user, and about as far from "Amelie" as you can get.
But then "Priceless" takes an unexpected backflip into the territory of Ernst Lubitsch and his chic, amoral 1930s movie farces. The penniless Jean is snapped up by a wealthy cougar named Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam), and the naif has to start behaving like a gigolo. The scenes in which Irene tutors her pupil in how to look moodily off into the distance while angling for a wristwatch worth 30,000 Euro are nearly as priceless as the title wants you to believe.
As you'd expect, there's trouble in paradise. The better Jean gets at playing the boy toy, the more turned on and ticked off Irene gets, and the more her own avaricious scruples begin to wobble. "Priceless" is so predictable you could set a $40 Timex by it, but as seamy as the setup is - the movie coos that life on the French Riviera is worth a little prostitution, and, who knows, maybe it is - it's made playful by the players and the setting.
Elmaleh has the innocent blue-eyed smolder of a Moroccan-born Buster Keaton, and very nearly the timing, too. He's perched right on the line between nerd and dreamboat, holding himself so still that you pay attention, waiting to see what he'll do next. Tautou makes slightly less of an impression: Without a strong director like Jean-Pierre Jeunet of "Amelie," her natural reticence holds her back. Ironically, that makes Irene both bearable and interesting. She's a hesitant slattern. According to the pricing scheme of "Priceless," there's value in that.