French film a shock hit
Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet in The Intouchables. Picture: Supplied

Earlier this year, the world fell in love with The Artist, embracing the hilarious yet touching tale of the decline and fall of a silent-era star with a passion not seen since, well, the silent era.

It was showered with awards, including an Oscar for the film's luminous leading man Jean Dujardin.

Meanwhile, back in The Artist's country of origin, France, another home-grown movie was winning even more hearts - Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's The Intouchables.

A comedy about a Senegalese-born miscreant who becomes the unlikely caregiver for a quadriplegic millionaire, The Intouchables is the second-biggest box-office hit in France, drawing in three times more patrons than The Artist. It has gone on to make $400 million worldwide, making it the second-highest-grossing non-English-language production behind The Passion of the Christ (recall that Mel Gibson's blockbuster was in Aramaic).

Perhaps more significantly, the co-star of The Intouchables, Omar Sy, beat Dujardin for this year's best actor at the Cesars, the French equivalent of the Academy Awards. The 34-year-old Paris-born Sy is the first black actor to win such a prestigious acting award in France and it was greeted as something of an Obama-esque achievement.

The Intouchables is not in the same class as The Artist. It's a familiar Hollywood-ish tale of a free-spirited lower-class guy bringing an emotionally moribund rich man back to life.

But it's easy to see the appeal of The Intouchables to a country struggling with immigration, racism and economic decline. It tells an uplifting tale of co-operation and coexistence at a time when Europe is in its deepest crisis since World War II.

"It's a question of timing. For Europe, it was a special moment of crisis," co-director Toledano told the Los Angeles Times when asked why he thought The Intouchables took off when it was released last year. "People were very depressed. And here we have a very simple story about human relationships." Toledano has made several feelgood comedies with Nakache before their breakout blockbuster The Intouchables.

Another reason why The Intouchables has become a phenomenon is that the story is based on the true-life tale of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a French aristocrat and director of one of the world's most prominent champagne houses who lost the use of his arms and legs in a hang-gliding accident in 1993, and his Algerian-born carer, Abdel Sellou. Their story was the subject of a book, The Second Wind, then a documentary.

Philippe (played by Francois Cluzet) has a fortune and a mansion in the centre of Paris but he's cut off physically and emotionally from the wider world. Worse, he restricts his relationship with women to the exchange of elegant, erotically charged letters with a woman he has never met (his own wife has died of cancer).

When the film opens Philippe makes the bold decision not to hire another dreary assistant. Instead, he offers the job to a seemingly unsuitable young black man named Driss (Sy), who admitted at his interview that he was only there to get a form signed that would enable him to keep getting unemployment benefits.

Of course, Driss' wild ways - his taste for hookers, his refusal to keep his mouth shut and his penchant for dope - are just what Philippe needs to shake up his depressing life. He's reignited by Driss' joie de vivre.

Indeed, Pozzo di Borgo is so against being regarded as an object of pity that, when he was approached by Toledano and Nakache for the rights to his story, he had one stipulation - the film had to be a comedy. Pozzo di Borgo also didn't mind the team straying from the book and the facts of his life for comic effect because no matter how extreme Driss' behaviour - in one sequence he pours hot water on Philippe's leg to check the extent of his paralysis - it is exactly the kind of thing that Abdel would have done.

The Intouchables has been such a massive hit in France - almost a third of the population has seen it - it has sparked a major cultural and political debate, with several observers seeing the crippled middle-aged white man being reinvigorated by the ethnic youth of the suburbs being a metaphor for the country itself.

Not surprisingly, right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen denounced the notion of a handicapped nation needing rescue through immigration.

In the US, however, The Intouchables has come under attack from influential American critics who have described the film as racist and "a global embarrassment".

In an angry review in trade journal Variety, Jay Weissberg declared that Sy was saddled with "a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race".

The Intouchables, continues Weissberg, "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens".

When asked about the attacks on the film, Toledano told Toronto's Globe and Mail: "It's political correctness with these Americans. You shouldn't say this, you shouldn't say that.

"It is true that Driss has less culture; he has less access to culture. That is what the film denounces, with humour . . ."

The Americans have also criticised the film for changing the Driss character from Algerian to Senegalese but the filmmakers said they chose Sy because they had worked with him before.

"In America, this transformation from Arabic to African-American would have far-reaching implications; but in France, such distinctions have little consequence," the pair said in a piece they penned for the online magazine the Huffington Post.

"Light or dark-skinned, North or Sub-Saharan African, immigrants from all parts of the world live in the same neighbourhoods and share the same limited options in France's socioeconomic system, regardless of their community of origin."

The Intouchables opens today.

The West Australian

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