By Alan Mattli
Ten months ago, in September 2011, a movie was released in France that took the country by storm. It was called Intouchables and it became not only one of the country’s but also one of Europe’s biggest cinematic hits of all time. Writer-directors Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache adapted Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s autobiographical book Le Second Souffle and presented the world with a heartwarming story of an African immigrant from a Paris banlieue who is hired by a rich tetraplegic (Pozzo di Borgo) to be his caregiver. The Weinstein Co. saw the movie’s potential, bought the rights, and distributed it in the United States – a U.S. remake may follow. It was met with mostly benevolent reviews – it holds a 76% “Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes – and it seems to have struck a chord with audiences as well. However, from the beginning, there have been comments on how Intouchables is in actuality an offensive, stereotypical, manipulative resurrection of abhorrent racial stereotypes. Not only is this view aggravatingly ignorant on a whole number of levels, it shows how insecure Americans still are about the portrayal of racial relations.
First of all, Intouchables is a delightful movie. Even if you strip it from its numerous sociopolitical implications, it works as a thoroughly enjoyable, hilarious, bittersweet comedy about how two lost souls find solace and happiness in each other. Nakache and Toledano work with the age-old principle of casting a straight man – in this case, the minimalistic, wonderfully succinct François Cluzet as Philippe – alongside a funny man, a role perfectly fitted for Omar Sy, the son of a Senegalese and a Mauritian, who has been a known comic in France for twelve years now, as Driss. Both were rightfully nominated for a César award – Sy won it, beating Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) in a massive upset. They work perfectly as a team, comedically and emotionally. Most European critics loved the film and even Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who insisted on the movie being a comedy, gave it his placet: the 61-year-old, who is paralysed from the neck down, was reported as saying “I’m clapping with both hands!”.
Shortly after its initial release, however, on 29 September last year, the critical consensus was ruptured by a more negative voice from across the pond. Variety‘s Jay Weissberg complained that the film is “offensive”, that it “proudly states it’s based on a true story, though tellingly, the caretaker in real life is Arab, not black”, that “Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term)”, and, consequently, that the movie as a whole “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens”. Indeed, “it’s painful to see Sy […] in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race”. Earlier this year, renowned critic Roger Ebert, even though more open towards the movie’s charms than Weissberg, added to this take by deeming Intouchables “a simplistic reduction of racial stereotypes”, which in this regard bears some similiarities to Driving Miss Daisy but is the inferior film because the characters from the 1989 Oscar winner were “older” and “shaped by their times”, and thus were more in touch with racial reality.
This June, Vivienne Walt of TIME magazine responded to statements of this kind. Her article, devoted to the French banlieue problem and Omar Sy’s career, pre- and post-Intouchables, offers a much-needed relativisation: according to her, Weissberg’s rant against the perceived “Uncle Tom racism” is a “peculiarly American accusation to aim at a very French film but also a hint that the movie’s coarse charms may not translate as easily in the States as they have in Europe”. Walt addresses a crucial and well-known point here. Europeans and Americans have always had different ways of looking at films, especially ones concerning sensitive issues like war, sexuality, or race. The reason for the discussion at hand is an amalgamate of cultural discrepancies, a fatal misunderstanding of the film, and a hint of American arrogance and ignorance.
It is clear that critics like Weissberg and Ebert come from a different background than European, and particularly French, reviewers and audiences when it comes to the subject of racial relations. Both are conspicuously ill at ease in dealing with the issue. They are afraid of offending anyone by approving of a film that is, in their view, “offensive”. The United States, the archetypal melting pot of ethnicities, may pride itself in having elected its first black president in 2008 and in being on its way towards a utopian “post-racial” society, but such a hyper-sensitivity runs contrary to that ideal, it is “White Guilt” taken to an uncanny and disgustingly patronising extreme that subverts its original purpose. This is curious because the U.S. is not the only country with unresolved racial conflicts: America remembers its slave-holding days, it has the Trayvon Martin case and racist anti-Obama bumper stickers. France on the other hand, with its history of colonising large parts of Africa, faces a growing parallel society of immigrants living in the banlieues of its cities and a disturbingly vocal anti-immigration sentiment among its citizens. But it is Americans who are offended by a black man being the centre of comedy in a film like this. They see him as nothing but a “performing monkey”, a regress to the days when slaves entertained their masters, instead of merely a hilarious man, period. Indeed, reading these reviews one could get the impression that Toledano and Nakache derive laughs from the colour of Driss’ skin; Weissberg’s accusatory pointing out that Pozzo di Borgo’s real life caregiver was Arab suggests that Omar Sy was cast intentionally as a black comic relief. If anything, it’s handicapped people who should be offended by Intouchables, as Driss lovingly pokes fun at them at several points in the film – “telethon disabled”, anyone?
Of course, the film incorporates subtext that is meant to provoke debates about race, integration, and tolerance. But it seems like said critics look at the issue from the wrong angle. Weissberg sees the racist stereotype of a poor man with African roots who helps a handicapped millionaire to “get down”, somebody who entertains the upper class with his ethnic, lower class antics. Ebert mourns the lack of outlook the movie has because, according to him, it doesn’t embrace the solace a companion can give to a disabled person enough, despite the fact that one might argue the point that Intouchables does this with effortless subtlety. The more jarring conclusion Ebert draws from the film is his comparison of it with Driving Miss Daisy. Apparently, the French comedy lacks the connection to reality Bruces Beresford’s dramedy had. And this is the point where the criticism of the film becomes somewhat offensive itself. Ebert calls it a “soothing fantasy” and rejects the notion that it connects to reality in any meaningful way. He ignores the aforementioned anti-immigration sentiments that have been running rampant in France for years now; he ignores the often discussed problem of an aging French population; he ignores the fact that La Grande Nation faces a sociological paradigm shift – these are all subjects that are touched upon in Intouchables: Philippe, a member of the old French aristocracy, is not just immobile but completely detached from the real world; he is in need of assistance, both physically and psychologically; he receives it from an immigrant. This is not to say that an American reviewer should be aware of the intricate details of a country’s changing society but it shows a certain egocentricity that exists in the United States. This becomes particularly poignant when Weissberg concludes that “unthinking auds” may think the film is funny while predicting that European viewers will whole-heartedly embrace it. Cheers.
Intouchables seems not to have suffered from these attitudes. It is still going strong in various European countries, it currently ranks 72nd on the Internet Movie Database’s “Top 250 Films” list, and it seems to be able to find a small but inclined audience in the United States. Whether the turnout is significant enough to stave off a remake remains to be seen. Still, the reviews of Ebert, Weissberg, and other, less snide, more open, but still unenthusiastic critics – Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers, for instance – suggest that the cultural divide between the U.S. and Europe is still gaping and that some Americans still belittle other countries’ cinematic output. Finally, and probably most importantly, this overly quick flagging of something as “racially insensitive” hints at a more deeply rooted insecurity concerning race. So it might not be a bad idea to do as Driss does and to loosen up a bit.