Hollywood rules the movie world, dominating the box office in every country where American films are freely shown. So how to explain the startling success of the French dramatic comedy Intouchables? Since it opened last November, the film has earned $340 million, an all-time record for a foreign-language movie not made, nor yet released, in the U.S. About half of that revenue came from French-speaking countries, but the movie also made $77 million in Germany and nearly $20 million each in Italy and Spain. Even Greece has kicked in about $1 million. For comparison, consider that The Avengers, already No. 4 on the list of all-time worldwide moneymakers, has not earned nearly as much in any of those countries as Intouchables.
The film is not an action-adventure; it boasts no top-name actors. Unlike other recent Euro-hits, it is not based on a famous novel (the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) or beloved comic book (the Asterix and Obelix series). It’s that rare commodity: a little movie that almost everyone sees and likes. Now The Weinstein Company, which did all right by the French-made, modestly budgeted, no-talkie, Oscar-winning comedy The Artist, is gambling that Intouchables will find a welcome home in the States. The Weinstein brothers certainly hope it does better than the 1993 French comedy smash Les visiteurs, whose dubbed American makeover they entrusted to Mel Brooks, at a reported outlay of more than $1 million, only to decide they’d release a simple subtitled version that took in less than a million dollars Stateside.
I have no investment in The Weinstein Company, but I predict that The Intouchables, as it’s now called, will do just fine. Some customers may be sold just from the plot pitch. The writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, found their inspiration in the true story (told in the 2004 French documentary À la vie, à la mort) of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy aristocrat whom a paragliding accident rendered a paraplegic, and his improbable caregiver, an African-immigrant ex-con named Abdel Sellou. In the movie Abdel becomes Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese who must apply for jobs he doesn’t want in order to stay on welfare. But Philippe (François Cluzet) finds the fellow’s bluster and bravado appealing and hires him as his live-in handler. It’s an opposites-attract, getting-to-know-you buddy comedy with a tender edge and a sweet center.
In his first days on the job, Driss is all attitude. Told he must help Philippe void his bowels, he explodes, “I’m not emptying the ass of a guy I don’t know. Or even of a guy I do know. I don’t empty anyone’s ass, on principle.” He fruitlessly flirts with the boss’s assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) and antagonizes Philippe’s adopted teen daughter Eliza (Alba Gaïa Bellugi). No connoisseur of modern art, Driss is appalled at the asking price for a painting with a giant splotch of red: “The guy wants 30 grand for a nosebleed?” And to prove to himself that Philippe is physically insensitive below the neck, he pours scalding tea on the man’s legs.
(READ: Vivienne Walt’s profile of Intouchables award-winner Omar Sy)
So far The Intouchables sounds like The Miracle Worker for sadists, or possibly My Hot Foot. (Its plot is also quite similar to that of Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone, which played at Cannes this year.) There are no bonus points for guessing that the two men will grow to be friends and learn from each other — mostly Philippe from Driss. The Senegalese will lift the quadriplegic widower out of his doldrums, hiring women who can give Philippe a kind of sexual pleasure (“The ears are a highly sensitive erogenous zone”). He may even find a love partner for his generous employer.
Every American reviewer of The Intouchables is constitutionally required to note and comment on the racial stereotypes on display here. My comment: Eh. First of all, the history of French race relations is not equivalent to ours. Second, it’s incidentally interesting that the ethnicity of the caregiver has been changed from North African to sub-Saharan African; and there’s no question that the directors are less deft at sketching Driss’s fractious family life than the opulent vectors of Philippe’s mansion.
But, Special News Bulletin, comedy exaggerates characters and incidents; that’s how it makes humans funny and audiences laugh. At the start of The Intouchables, each man seems strange, alien, ludicrous to the other; the two must collide before they connect. Anyway, in this movie the jokes are made at the expense not of the leads but of the supporting figures — who in comedies from Aristophanes to Apatow, have always been given the custard pie of derision.
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One might also argue that the scalding-tea scene makes fun of paraplegics — but the real Philippe Pozzo di Borgo must not have minded. He was an advisor to the directors, who are donating 5 percent of the film’s profits to the Simon de Cyrène Association, a charity that helps invalids and their families. (Those lucky folks at Simon de Cyrène: they wound up with a gift of Bill-and-Melinda-Gatesian proportions.)
Cluzet has been a modest luminary in French cinema for a quarter-century — since playing the music fan who, in a twist on the Intouchables plot, becomes jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s keeper in the 1987 Round Midnight. He makes Philippe a figure of dignity, grace and an almost lifesaving sense of humor about his plight.
(READ: Corliss on François Cluzet in ‘Round Midnight)
Sy, like so many new French movie stars, came from cabaret and TV standup comedy, and can flip the switch from scowl to smile in a heartbeat. His and Cluzet’s screen rapport seems effortless — unless they didn’t like each other, in which case That’s Acting. Anyway, the folks who hand out the Césars (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards) must have thought Sy was acting: they gave him this year’s Best Male Performance prize over The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, who won the Oscar.