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Pierre Salvadori’s latest film is a romantic comedy – with a twist. And with a central performance by Audrey Tatout as a determined golddigger. But all comedy needs a certain degree of cruelty, Salvadori tells Bernard Payen.

Priceless is a comedy about the struggle between social classes…
I say it laughingly, but it's very true: the behaviour of Madeleine and Jacques towards Jean and Irene is very violent. These are people who own others. When Gilles leaves Irene, he takes back everything that he has given her. When Jacques leaves her, he cuts her credit card in two. Irene and Jean are at the disposal of others, they do not belong and this relationship is shown through several short, funny yet tough scenes in the film. Like when Madeleine throws cushions at Jean to wake him up. But ultimately, Madeleine will never own Jean...he is 'Priceless' and this is what we all should be. This does not however take into account the anxiety, the fear of not belonging to something, the fear of being left out or left behind.

Is it love that saves Jean and Irene?
No. In writing with Benoit, we wanted to escape from this illusionary answer that is often characteristic of sentimental comedies. Love is often suggested as being the only way out when we are faced with the pressures of the world. For us, love was not the main thing at stake: they sleep together within the first ten minutes of meeting and Irene falls in love with Jean long before the end of the film. But for Irene, love is a problem, not a solution! Love makes her fragile, scares her and distracts her. In the story, every time Irene allows herself to be seduced by love, she pays for it straight away: she is dumped, humiliated and made to pay. Irene has her life, her career all planned out, and love with all the sacrifice that it asks, plays absolutely no part in her plan. No, what saves Irene is jealousy, an irresistible feeling. We want her to struggle against her love until the end, and we want it to act as a force that ultimately saves her. It's quite animal really! Then again, maybe we need to rely on our animal instinct sometimes in order to stay human.

Jean never judges Irene …
This is a very important point. He never tells her off and he quickly comes to the understanding that she lives in a world where her way of making money seems completely natural to her. Instead of judging her, he becomes like her, attacking her from the inside, not becoming her enemy but her ally. He adopts her lifestyle, imitates her like a chameleon. His virtue is that he never gives up. Through his insistence, in what is said, we see how tough someone can become.

Irene is very cruel …
She is tough. She wants her part of the pie and knows that she possesses no particular talent aside that of giving pleasure to others. This is in a way a skill like any other. Irene is the determined soldier and Jean is her enemy in the sense that his presence is a threat to her. As soon as she feels as though she is weakening, that her defenses are giving way and that his presence is putting her in danger, she decides to remove him from the equation as a good soldier would. She ruins him financially, so much so that he is forced to return to where he came from. Jean lets himself be taken. He gives himself to her and offers her all that he has, until he is left with nothing - he commits true financial suicide in an act of devoted love. I think that all comedy needs a certain degree of cruelty, and from a dramatic viewpoint it is interesting to have such a tough character.

Her view of him changes imperceptibly.
One of the key moments in this evolution is the look on Irene's face as she gazes at Jean as he wakes in the morning on the beach. It is here that she accepts and understands that she loves him. The audience who have sensed this, is now certain of it.

When you were writing the script, did you already have Audrey Tautou and Gad Elmaleh in mind?
Yes, I was already thinking about Audrey's whimsical nature and what she could bring to this role through her acting. I had seen Gad on stage and I wanted to choose a comedian who could be almost invisible, neutral and able to progressively acquire an elegance, a certain beauty. Someone who could be a magician of sorts and who could also use their body in a precise, comic manner. It was after having seen Gad on stage that the opening scene was written: Jean appears on screen pulled along by a pack of dogs and it is hard to tell whether he is walking the dogs or if it is really the dogs walking him! As a result of this scene, you form an image of a shy person, someone devoid of any real desire or will, who just allows themselves to be carried along by others. At the same time, you can tell that his character is slightly farcical and has the potential to throw a spanner in the works and upset the natural order of things. During this scene, I also film his feet a lot as I wanted to evoke the increasingly gracious character that he will become, a kind of dancer even. It is a scene that I love because everything is said without a word.

In this scene, Jean moves forward almost despite himself, as he continues to do in the remainder of the film.
Absolutely! In this first scene I try to immediately set the tone and style of the film. From the outset, we tried to write scenes of true cinematographic nature - situations that are destined to be filmed. Their value is not literary. You need to search for situations which are dramatically rich and contain expressive images. This concept comes from Lubitsch - the idea that in filming an object it can speak for itself.

In Priceless, this is the one euro coin for example?

Yes, in my films, I often include objects which carry with them the ambiguity of the characters, their complexity or their destiny. These objects that appear in my films act as a link between the audience and the characters.

How did you come up with this idea?
I was looking for a way for Jean to say to Irene that he knows who she is and that this did not bother him. When he asks her for ten seconds more of her time by giving her the one euro coin, it is a way of saying with a touch of gentle irony that he knows who she is. This allowed Jean’s character to start to develop a certain irony and humour, and started to make him more charming…from this point on his character becomes poetic. Then when Irene understands that Jean has become a gigolo, she returns the coin he gave her, signifying that he is now her alter ego. At this moment there is an almost fraternal relationship between them. They are brother and sister, colleagues as well as lovers. When they finally rid themselves of the one euro coin at the end, a weight is lifted from their shoulders. Particularly for Irene, as she is freed from her obsession with money. I really felt that this really made the film travel full circle and was stylistically interesting. This is how the one euro coin appeared in the film.

One aspect that is particular to your production style is the focus on the 'off scene' side of your characters.
I like to leave part of the role of scriptwriter to the imagination of the audience. This is exactly what I have in mind when I say that the one euro coin acts as a link between the audience and the character.

I love discrete scenes that are designed to be watched: like when Irene drinks a cocktail and puts the paper umbrella in her hair. I would much prefer that you then see her with five umbrellas in her hair rather than show her drinking five times. The audience makes the connection themselves. In the real time of a film, this is something that does not exist, it is just a tiny part, a tenth of a millimetre between shots. It's nothing and yet it is a time and space reserved for the audience. This is what continually links the audience to the film. It is childlike, a game between those who are watching and those who are acting. For me, this represents the supreme art of cinema.

Published April 5, 2007

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Pierre Salvadori

Australian release, April 5, 2007

Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a barman/waiter in a grand hotel in the South of France, is mistaken for a young millionaire by beautiful, scheming Irene (Audrey Tautou), who specializes in sugar daddies. They have a drunken one night stand before she discovers his lowly status, and beats a quick retreat. But Jean is lovestruck and pursues her around the Cote d'Azur. Irene bleeds him dry – but he gets a chance to emulate Irene’s lifestyle as a gigolo to wealthy Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) and moves in to a magnificent hotel with her. Irene now starts to give him advice on the tricks of the trade, and grows closer and closer to him. But a girl needs a rich escort and Irene is about to get a new one, when fate and cupid give her one last chance at real romance.

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