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François Cluzet and Omar Sy in movie still from “Intouchables.” Publicity image courtesy of Gaumont France.
Intouchables: Untouchable at the Box Office
The movie Intouchables has been France’s box-office story of the past year and it’s still going strong, breaking all-time records. It’s the first movie for TV comic Omar Sy, and the first major success of directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Yet the smaller-scale The Artist will win more awards and rake in more at the international box office.
Intouchables is a French film phenomenon, which often means Franco-Français (“impenetrably French” for the rest of us). Ironically it’s the commercial phenomena that those outside l’Hexagone (metropolitan France) find most impenetrable. La Grande Vadrouille (1966), the Gone with the Wind of French film phenoms, is not on anyone’s ten-best list. The last phenom, Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks, 2008), was a low-brow landmark, yet the Will Smith remake has yet to be remade. Generally speaking, phenoms tend not to be very good and, though most are comedies, tend to be rather unfunny. They’re really feel-good movies about relationships set against harsh backdrops like WWII, regional division, and modernity (Les Visiteurs, 1993). Intouchables, happily, is a good film and very funny throughout, but like other phenoms it’s most interesting for what it says about contemporary France.
Omar Sy and François Cluzet in movie still from “Intouchables.” Publicity image courtesy of Gaumont France.
France is recognizing, at long last, its disabled population.
Intouchables is the story of a quadriplegic (François Cluzet) who takes on a black ex-convict (Omar Sy) from the banlieues as his aide. Based on a real quadriplegic’s memoir, Le Deuxième Souffle (The Second Wind), the two become fast friends, each helping the other in different ways. Cluzet is first-rate as always, and less clenched than usual, playing the disabled Philippe. Philippe hires Driss, woefully inadequate in conventional terms, because he recognizes a fellow “untouchable.” He also senses that Driss will lead him out of his gilded wheelchair and into a more lively existence. While France’s first-rate health system may provide adequate care for the disabled, integrating handicapped persons into mainstream life is something else. In Paris most buildings are inaccessible, as is most mass transit. The government charges a penalty to companies that don’t hire the handicapped but most simply pay the penalty, or hire persons who are technically entitled to the handicapped label without being really disabled. Being independently wealthy, money isn’t Philippe’s problem.
The French are discovering their “other country,” the housing projects called cités, located in remote suburbs.
These cités are not only inhuman by design and squalid, they are populated almost exclusively by persons of North African or sub-Saharan African descent. “Social films” have been popular in France, but their implicit message is that “conditions” can be reformed or revolted against. Here, with Driss as our guide, we see another world entirely, like the shantytowns in South Africa or favelas in Brazil. Omar Sy shows real dramatic talent in his first film. Other comics, such as Ch’tis’ Dany Boon, don’t exhibit much non-comic depth. The scenes of Driss in the ghetto, confronting his mother or younger brother, are authentic and harrowing without being melodramatic.
Movie still from “Intouchables.” Publicity image courtesy of Gaumont France.
The French still can’t get over their royalty two centuries after the revolution.
The film delights in the luxury of the quadriplegic Philippe’s family. To a degree this puts us in the shoes of Driss, who is astounded by the distance from ghetto to Paris poshdom. But we recognize the filmmakers’ real fascination, adoration even, for the townhouses, the fancy cars, and the immaculate dinners. The audience swoons even while being aghast. America is now recognizing its class system, with the Occupy Movement’s notion of the 1% and books like Pity the Billionaire. But while Americans may find some fascination with its oligarchs, they don’t take their crass values seriously. The French still eat up their noblesse and haute-bourgeoisie, just like the Brits fawn over the royal family (at least when they marry).
The French are still in love with their language.
Intouchables is consistently funny, but it’s hard to think of all that many uproarious situations. It’s not really built on situation—it’s not a sitcom—its humor derives from the wisecracking linguistic spin Omar Sy puts on both character and situation. This isn’t conventional French but cité Créole, which is jazzy, crude, hyperbolic, politically incorrect—like hip-hop language in the U.S. French audiences enjoy the contrast of the two languages, just like they enjoyed the main character in Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis confronting northern dialect, and Valérie Lemercier’s mock-bourgeois inflection of the word “okay” in Les Visiteurs. But this kind of thing doesn’t translate well (except for the Hollywood remake).
Opposites attract, but only so far.
At the heart of Intouchables is an odd-couple buddy movie. In Ch’tis we had the friendship of a Parisian and a stereotypical character from France’s north. Here it’s an underclass black and a disabled bourgeois. The characters build a common front against the reactionary or just plain stupid, but the friendship only lasts the duration of the film; afterwards they go their separate ways. On one level this isn’t a bad thing—Driss is set to make his own way as a painter and responsible family man. Philippe is more assertive, and becomes romantically involved. On another level this sells the ideal of fraternité a little short, and as in all buddy movies women are left on the sidelines. No matter: audiences laugh together for a spell, are moved by a clip of the protagonists’ real-life models at the end, and carry away a bit of empathy. As for American audiences, well, Will Smith could use a starring vehicle, and François Cluzet does look a little like Dustin Hoffman.
Official movie site by Gaumont France
Official site for directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Production: Quad Productions
Distribution: Gaumont (Weinstein Company, US)
Photos courtesy of Gaumont France
Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based film reviewer who covers the latest French film releases for BonjourParis every other week. Click on his name to read his past reviews published here.