It’s a familiar story: The man seems to have everything; a bulging bank balance, a successful career, a house in the country, and a beautiful wife — but he’s still bored.
And that boredom allows the enemy to penetrate and take down the walls of the castle he has so carefully built. So goes the story of “Le prix du desir (released in Japan as “Soshite Deveneaux no Morie)” written and directed by Italy’s Roberto Ando. Ando’s name is as yet little known outside of Europe — for long he had worked as an assistant for Federico Fellini and, later, Francis Coppola. This is his second film at the helm and he assembles a French cast and drenches the screen with a very particular sensuality. The centerpiece is the renowned Daniel Auteuil, always interesting to watch and here playing Daniel, a novelist in his 50s who embarks on an affair with a life-ruining femme fatale (played by Chanel model Anna Mouglalis).
“Le prix du desir” is mindful of Louis Malle’s “Damage” (which paired Jeremy Irons with Juliette Binoche) in which a man suddenly finds himself so hideously bored in successful middle age that he goes overboard for the charms of a much younger woman — in both cases the fiancee of his son — and takes a nosedive into tragic disaster. While Irons was a polished Mayfair politician so repressed that he couldn’t have an intimate conversation with his wife without making it sound like a Parliament speech, Auteuil as Daniel is more a man of the world. Daniel works under the pseudonym of Serge Novak and, despite his best-seller author status, had never exposed himself to the media. Daniel works alone, in a secluded cabin in the woods, and shuns visitors, even snubbing his beautiful, supportive wife, Nicoletta (Greta Scacchi), for the most part. But on the way from Paris to attend his son’s wedding in Capri, he meets the young, alluring Milla (Anna Mouglalis) whose interest in him is obvious from the moment they set eyes on each other. They spend the night together, and at the wedding he discovers that Milla is, in fact, his new daughter-in-law.
Not that this deters her from seducing Daniel all over again, and away from their respective, unsuspecting spouses they continue the affair. Initially reluctant to become involved, Daniel finds himself enmeshed in a passionate obsession he hadn’t bargained for, fueled by the fact that like him, Milla is originally from Poland and speaks his native language. Things turn dark however, when Milla’s friend Ewa (Magda Mielcarz) blackmails Daniel, not so much for his infidelity but for his Serge Novak identity, and it is claimed that his much-acclaimed first novel was the work of a best friend who had killed himself at the age of 20. All the evidence points to a conniving collaboration between Milla and Ewa, and still Daniel can’t help pining for Milla. After mulling over several courses of action Daniel holds a press conference for the first time in his career, pays Ewa the sum she demands (half of which he knows will go to Milla) and tells his lawyer that he will quit writing.
What’s interesting in “Le prix” is not so much the relationship between Milla and Daniel (which is pretty standard stuff) but how Daniel’s wife deals with it all. Scacchi, who had played plenty of femme fatales in her time (the most famous is probably the vampish attorney mistress of Harrison Ford in “Presumed Innocent”) is relegated here to the difficult role of the cuckolded wife. However, she carries the whole thing off with minimum humiliation and impressive dignity. Much to her and Ando’s credit, Scacchi’s Nicoletta is never verbose or hysterical, nor does she attempt to negotiate with Daniel. When she discovers her husband’s affair, she immediately states her intentions of divorce in one sentence and asks only that her son be spared the knowledge: “It would destroy him and I can’t stand to see him so hurt.” She’s very sensual herself and witnessing her son and his bride together, she tosses off sparky remarks like: “I get the feeling that these two got married just for sex. That excites me.”
While Daniel’s handling of his relationship with Milla is typical French-cinema fare (he breaks it off in a town cafe while rain drenches the windows) Nicoletta’s attitude speaks of an Italian femininity. Expansive and generous, she puts the needs of her son and husband first and even in a family crisis, rouses herself to go into the kitchen and assemble a meal. Daniel appreciates her fully but in the end he chooses romantic destruction over protecting his wife. And despite her deep hurt, she accepts his decision.
The depth and maturity of emotions, the way the characters never explain themselves or make excuses, the process by which pleasure morphs into pain — all these make “Le prix” extremely watchable. The glitch is that everyone is so self-sufficient and contained you can’t sympathize with any of them. And the lesson, if there is one, probably goes something like this: Success may breed boredom and its alleviation has a price. But . . . so what?