“The Intouchables”: Racial comedy, French style

"The Intouchables" is the biggest foreign-language film of all time. Some critics say it's also racist

Topics: France, Movies, Race, ,

"The Intouchables": Racial comedy, French styleA still from "The Intouchables"

Here’s a startling news item: “The Intouchables,” a lively if largely predictable Parisian comedy about a wealthy quadriplegic and his ne’er-do-well immigrant caretaker, has become the biggest international success in the history of French cinema. Indeed, according to some sources — and these things are notoriously difficult to measure on a global and historical scale — “The Intouchables” is now the biggest non-Anglophone film of all time, with a worldwide gross approaching $300 million.

But beyond the business headlines, what’s really fascinating about “The Intouchables” is the way it exposes the gulf in racial attitudes between France and the United States, along with another gulf that’s just as wide, the one that has film critics and cinephiles on one side and popular audiences on the other. Viewers in numerous countries have eagerly devoured this feel-good fable about two men of different races and classes who forge an improbable friendship (dubbed by some wags “Driving Monsieur Daisy”). While the audience for foreign-language film is inherently limited in America, there’s no reason to believe it won’t do well here also. At the same time, heated transatlantic debate has erupted over whether “The Intouchables” traffics in offensive racial stereotypes, with Variety critic Jay Weissberg writing an uncharacteristically angry review that accused the film of “Uncle Tom racism” and compared the Senegalese caretaker character to a “performing monkey.”

When Harvey Weinstein first acquired “The Intouchables” in the wake of its smash success in France, he clearly imagined another dark-horse Oscar contender, in the wake of “The Artist.” The film has racked up audience awards at film festival after film festival, and currently stands at No. 93 on IMDb’s user-generated “Top 250″ list. Omar Sy, the charismatic Afro-French actor who plays Driss, the caretaker, won this year’s César award (the French Oscar equivalent) for best actor, beating out actual Oscar winner Jean Dujardin. But with the looming possibility that “The Intouchables” could spark a divisive, soul-searching racial debate — which was precisely what squelched the Oscar hopes of “The Help” — those expectations have been downplayed. (That isn’t why “The Intouchables” is being released this week, with Weinstein and most of the film-biz aristocracy in Cannes, but the coincidence is oddly useful.)

Let me come clean right now and tell you that I enjoyed “The Intouchables” quite a bit. If you’re looking for a lightweight summer change of pace, with just a smidgen of Continental flair, here it is. Both Sy and co-star François Cluzet (of the hit thriller “Tell No One”) are marvelous, the former playing a guy who’s constantly in motion, both physically and psychologically, and the latter playing a depressed and repressed guy who literally can’t move, but whose real imprisonment has more to do with his spirit than his spinal cord. Don’t go expecting serious French art cinema, please; those who have described this movie as something like a mid-’80s Eddie Murphy comedy dressed up with classy Parisian settings are correct. But here’s the question, and I can’t answer it for you: Is that such a bad thing, in itself?

Once is not enough for a movie that’s made this much money, of course, and Weinstein already has an American remake in the works, possibly to star Colin Firth as stick-up-butt wheelchair dude. The real Eddie Murphy has gotten too old to play the loosey-goosey, pot-smoking sidekick, but there’s no shortage of guys who could do it: Jamie Foxx is the default setting these days, but I’d go for the suddenly hot Kevin Hart from “Think Like a Man.” I’m not claiming it’s aesthetically or sociologically valid to remake a French movie that already feels like a reheated Hollywood throwback, by the way. I’m saying it’s a cruel reality, like Dutch elm disease or Adam Sandler, and there’s no way to stop it.

To get back to the case at hand, I do understand what the haters find so offensive about “The Intouchables.” (The infelicitous English title, by the way, reflects the fact that they couldn’t really get away with calling it “The Untouchables,” could they?) I was pretty taken aback by Weissberg’s vituperative review, and I tend to believe that “Uncle Tom” is one of those expressions that white people should pretty much never use. On the other hand, I can only applaud him for abandoning the balanced, analytical mode of trade-magazine criticism and saying exactly what he damn well thinks. (As for comparing a black man to a monkey — well, I understand what Weissberg was getting at, but it’s an error of rhetoric, the sort of comment that makes nuance and context disappear.) And I know for sure, from hearing friends and acquaintances in and around the movie business complain about this film, that Weissberg is not alone.

I believe that Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the writing-directing duo who made “The Intouchables,” are innocent of any bad intentions. In fact, “innocent” isn’t a bad word overall, for this movie and the worldview it represents. The French may pride themselves on being the most worldly and sophisticated of all people, but the debate in France about race and immigration and multiculturalism — which ramped up sharply after the suburban riots of 2005 — can sometimes sound strikingly naive to American ears. Until very recently, mainstream French opinion has resisted thinking about the nation in anything except homogeneous terms, despite growing Arab and black minorities (both immigrant and native-born) and evident social problems with segregation and discrimination. (The French census, for instance, is prohibited from collecting data on race or religion, so no one really knows how many French people are black or Islamic.)

There can be no question that the characters in “The Intouchables” are stereotypes, in the broad sense. Cluzet’s character, Philippe, is an aristocratic zillionaire who lives in an astonishingly luxurious flat in central Paris. Since being injured in a paragliding accident, he’s lived inside a cocoon of money and privilege, surrounded by antiques and modern art and a bevy of assistants. Sy’s character, Driss, is easygoing, good-hearted, lustful and uncultured, and his passions run toward pretty girls, getting high and vintage American R&B. Philippe hires Driss specifically because Driss doesn’t particularly want the job — he only shows up to get a signature for his benefits card — and feels no pity for Philippe.

Which is actually a pretty good reason. You get where this is going, most likely: Driss is a pretty inept caretaker, at least at first, but is the only person Philippe knows who will relate to him man to man. There’s a bit of borderline-homophobic humor about their enforced intimacy; there are interludes with hookers and fast cars and late-night conversations fueled by booze and marijuana. Driss learns to like Mozart and modern art; Philippe learns to get down with Earth Wind & Fire and gets some valuable tips about chicks. It’s probably fair to summarize this movie as being the story of a paralyzed white man who needs the help of a younger, stronger, more virile black man to reconnect with his own masculinity, and if you want to say that narrative reflects an underlying latticework of racist attitudes, I won’t argue with you. Then there’s the complicating factor that in the real-life story on which “The Intouchables” is based, the caretaker was of Algerian origin, and hence Arab rather than black. (The filmmakers have said they wanted to cast Sy, and built the story around him, but it’s certainly possible to render other interpretations.)

But one can concede all of that while still agreeing with French historian and multicultural activist François Durpaire, who has responded to Weissberg by arguing that the huge success of “The Intouchables” is likely to have positive effects in Europe’s emerging discussion of race and culture, even if the movie relies on crude generalizations. (Durpaire adds that if “The Intouchables” is offensive, so were the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies.) Movies are not meant to be seminars in sociology, after all, and most viewers will receive “The Intouchables” as an upbeat story about two guys from vastly different circumstances who turn out to have a lot in common and help each other, etc., rather than a lesson in racial semiotics.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement for “The Intouchables” has come from aging French ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has described it as an allegory about how the future of his nation depends on disenfranchised young immigrants from the suburbs. He thinks that’s a “dreadful” vision, mind you — but, seriously, who knew that guy was so smart?

“The Intouchables” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>