Yesterday, my boyfriend and I went to see two one-bedroom apartments in our price range, one in Crown Heights and one in Bed-Stuy, both cramped and in mild disrepair. The light plywood doors were flimsy. The bedrooms were monkishly small. The sink in the Bed-Stuy apartment overshot the sink-crevice in the bathroom wall and sat at an awkward angle, caulked to the wall with a thick layer of plaster. Pity the girl who knocks her toothbrush (lipstick, pill bottle, earring) into the black hole behind that sink.
It was a long and somewhat deflated subway ride back on an A train running local, and then the L train wasn’t running at all between 8th Avenue and Union Square. We got out at 14th & 8th, bickered, walked to the movie theater at 13th and Broadway, didn’t really feel compelled to see anything playing there, bickered some more, sat down in Union Square, had a cigarette, and waited out the funk.
When it lifted, we wandered over to Stand, a haute burger joint on 12th and University, found a line of women sporting shiny Saturday-night hair and stilettos, decided to check out was playing at Cinema Village instead, and bought tickets to Priceless, which we’d never heard of but which starred Audrey Tatou and started in fifteen minutes. The tickets were $10 each, and I commented to my boyfriend that it was odd that that price felt cheap.
All of this is to say that we had had the kind of day that enabled us to understand perhaps somewhat more than we usually would why Audrey Tatou’s Irène (her extreme thinness walking the line between “never too rich or too thin” and starving Dickensian waif in an interesting way) found it necessary to devote her life to the acquisition of rich boyfriends and the subsequent acquisition of luxurious dresses and dinners. The movie displayed a refreshing absence of moralism about social climbing and money—there was no painting the rich as secretly cursed by their money or universally morally bankrupt, just a frank admission that it is awfully nice to have lots of money. Lots of money buys long, almost continuous stays at the glittering watering-places of the French Riviera, and the attentions of charming and beautiful young companions, and most importantly, it buys leisure. The rich don’t have to clean their own tables or make their own beds; they wear their expensive shirts open at the neck. It’s telling that in pretending to be a have rather than a have-not, protagonist Jean keeps whipping off his neat black bow tie and adopting a languorous slouch, and as he adapts to a change in fortune, he has to quelch his impulses to bus his own breakfast table and pull the duvet of his enormous bed into strict hospital corners.
The rich also have the privilege of speaking frankly. Jean, by contrast, begins the movie bowing and scraping, being run all over town by the pampered pets of rich women because he can’t say no to his boss at the hotel. By the end of the movie, though, he’s gained a sureness of speech and purpose, a forcefulness, and the movie is clear both that it’s good that he’s got this new sureness and that he’s gained it through deception, manipulation, and contact with the entitled elite. The transformation is really beautifully done–it’s a series of small, gradual shifts that add up to a big change, rather than a swelling-music movie (slash musical theater: I’ve seen a couple too many of these lately) epiphany.
Despite how fresh it feels, the movie has a strongly formal structure: it starts off with a very French-farce series of mistaken identities, complete with people slamming doors and hiding, and goes on to revolve around a set of recurring motifs including broken sentences and a one-Euro coin, each recurring to mark moments of consequence in a delicate, unobtrusive way. The comfort with formalism seems to me related to the comfort with moral ambiguity surrounding wealth: the movie and its characters take the good from formalism and wealth with a very light touch and a very sure hand, and don’t get pulled under by their scarier riptides.
It’s a lovely little movie, and I recommend it. And I don’t think the day of apartment woes, subway difficulties, non-broken-in shoes from Payless, and intra-relationship bickering are necessarily crucial to its enjoyment.