Glossy French tales of love and war - Female Agents & Priceless on DVD

‘Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once…’ No! Banish all memories of ‘Allo ‘Allo. In the stirring French wartime action film about derring-do in occupied France, Female Agents, Sophie Marceau looks nothing like Michelle of the Resistance, even if her character’s exploits sometimes bear as much resemblance to reality as the BBC sitcom.

Best known to British audiences as Bond villain Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough, Marceau plays exiled freedom fighter Louise Desfontaines, who selects three fellow Frenchwomen – prostitute Jeanne (Julie Depardieu), showgirl Suze (Marie Gillain) and pious explosives agent Gaëlle (Déborah François) – for a perilous commando mission under the noses of the Nazis in the spring of 1944.

With the fate of the planned D-Day landings in the balance, Louise and her team set out to rescue a British agent who has fallen into enemy hands, but the clandestine operation turns into a protracted battle of wits with the head of Nazi counter-intelligence, Colonel Heindrich, played by Moritz Bleibtreu (shortly to be seen on British cinema screens as 1970s German terrorist Andreas Baader in The Baader Meinhof Complex).

Female Agents, or Les Femmes de l’ombre (Women of the Shadows), as it’s called in French, is an unashamedly old-fashioned “bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission” war film; only this time the guys are girls. Being French, the women are also impossibly glamorous, lipstick and hair barely out of place as they go through nighttime parachute jumps, gunfights, ambushes and hair’s-breadth escapes.

Female Agents - Sophie Marceau as SOE agent Louise Desfontaines

Yet if you look past the glossy surface, you do get a sense of the heroism of the real women who worked for the French Resistance and for Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, the SOE, during World War Two. Indeed, it was reading the obituary in The Times of an actual heroine of the Resistance, Lise Villameur, who died in March 2004 at the age of 98, which inspired director Jean-Paul Salomé to make his film.

Louise’s deeds in the film may be far removed from those of Villameur, and the twists and turns of her mission are certainly far-fetched, but the scenes in which captured agents undergo torture credibly evoke the pain and fear and courage of the war’s genuine heroes and heroines.

The characterisation doesn’t go particularly deep, and the acting gets wooden when characters break, infrequently, into English (shades of ‘Allo ‘Allo after all, then), but Salome turns the screw of suspense so tightly that you’ll be left gasping rather than grinning.

Priceless - Gad Elmaleh & Audrey Tautou

Far away from the world of Female Agents, yet equally glossy and equally removed from real life, is the French romantic comedy Priceless (Hors de prix), a frothy escapist fantasy set amid the leisured super-rich of Biarritz and Nice.

The movie stars France’s favourite gamine, Audrey Tautou of Amélie fame, as inveterate gold-digger Irène, who mistakes shy hotel waiter Jean (Gad Elmaleh) for a rich playboy and spends the night with him, only to spurn him when she discovers his true status. The tables get turned, though, when Irène’s sugar daddy dumps her and a wealthy widow takes up with Jean.

There are those who will be left queasy at the notion of a romantic comedy about call girls and gigolos, but I think director Pierre Salvadori pulls it off. Tautou finds a vulnerable side to her unscrupulous character, while Elmaleh, who’s been dubbed the “funniest person in France”, is a marvellous physical comedian whose tiniest facial expressions possess more humour than any number of pratfalls.

I’m sure someone in Hollywood is already plotting a remake, and I’m sure that when if and when it appears, it will be dire. Unless, that is, they work out how to resurrect Billy Wilder.

Priceless - Gad Elmaleh & Audrey Tautou