Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 19, 2012 7:59 pm 
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French elegance and feel-good highs

The Intouchables (2011), which has become the second biggest box office success in French movie history, evidently providing a hungered-for sense of ethnic and class unity, runs the risk of seeming more cultural phenomenon than film. It is not the bad movie its opponents claim. Even if it were, its elegant look, buoyancy and good acting would make it hard to resist. It sets the stage for fun and hijinks from the opening, a high-speed chase wild enough to recall Claude Lelouche's famous short film of an insane ride through Paris at dawn. It maintains energy and high spirits throughout. This is the kind of movie that sweeps you away. After the chase it is continually dominated by its two protagonists. They are Driss (Omar Sy, who won the Best Actor César and acted in the writer-director's 2009 Tellement Proche), a big, elegant, vibrant young black man from the ghetto "banlieue," not long out of prison and on welfare, and Philippe (François Cluzot of Tell No One), a super-rich quadriplegic. Driss becomes Philippe's caretaker and procedes to surprise and charm him and liven up his life. It's all heightened, though this is, sort of, a true story.

Indeed, this is feel-good stuff. Several American critics have already damned it as a mass of clichés and racial stereotypes. They seem not to consider that it embraces these things and overrides them. Though this is in some ways a fantasy, it is a wise and pleasant one, like Beinix's Diva or Renoir's Boudou Saved from Drowing. The Intouchables is well made and well cast. Omar Sy so dominates the screen--and Cluzot is so skillful in his deadpan mime--that you don't have a chance to think. Intouchables is almost a continual high of a movie--with its speed and defiance of rules and and every so often a literal high when Driss fires up a big doobie and passes it back and forth with Philippe. A joint eases the panic attacks or breathing troubles Philippe has in the night, and it eases the phantom pain he feels, and just lets him live a little. The speed chase in Philippe's Maseratti with Driss at the wheel is the first high. They also go hang gliding late in the film, and a hang gliding accident is how Philippe got this way.

This cause of the injury hints that Philippe is not an uptight prissy dud in need of some Senegalese soul. He however verges on that when he exchanges long flowery poetic letters with a female with whom he's conducting a purely epistolary romance. Driss makes sure he talks to her and then meets her in person. Despite his wealth Philippe's life requires enormous courage and he sometimes falters (but mostly not). Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, with which this invites comparison, depicts a more complex and daunting existence. Its protagonist is totally paralyzed: he cannot even speak. Philippe is a lucky guy!

Far from being cliché-ridden, The Intouchables is about leaping over stereotypes. Driss' primary value for Philippe is that he makes no allowances, is not at all in awe or afraid of his disability, and sometimes completely forgets it. The well trained, conventional caretakers Philippe has had never, never let him forget he's handicapped. Driss and Philippe become pals. And yes, they exhange cultures. Driss plays Earth, Wind and Fire and gets everybody dancing at Philippe's birthday party, and Philippe teaches Driss about fine art and makes him realize many musical classics are already familir to him. The Variey reviewer Jay Weissberg did some serious head-shaking when he saw the movie at its San Sebastian debut: "The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights," he wrote, "will need to commission a massive rewrite to make palatable this cringe-worthy comedy about a rich, white quadriplegic hiring a black man from the projects to be his caretaker, exposing him to 'culture' while learning to loosen up. Sadly, this claptrap will do boffo Euro biz." You may cringe; I did not. Driss isn't just a quick study who livens things up. He also is generally useful because of his aggression and forwardness, not hesitating to smack the daughter's snotty boyfriend or a man who blocks the driveway, or to flirt with female staff members and make them feel attractive. His value is not as an "earthy" stereotype but as a strong and vital person.

It's hard to condemn this movie without ignoring the infectious way Omar Sy possesses and enlivens it. The film's critics may need to do some loosening up. This is really a story about having fun--whatever the challenges to doing so. On the other hand for Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, the original of Philippe, who has given many interviews, the thing that drew him and "Driss" together was that they were two men who were both outsiders and alone (the meaning of "untouchables" in the title), and the public applauds the film "in the dark" because they realize they too are not alone. He also hopes that this will make the public see the handicapped as people and 'open the door' to them.

When the movie was about to be shown to those attending the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York in February, Stephen Holden of the Times was equally disapproving. He wrote that Intouchables "exploits every hoary stereotype" and is "a crass escapist comedy that feels like a Gallic throwback to an ’80s Eddie Murphy movie." Sy in fact has been called a French Eddie Murphy, but the character he plays here is more open hearted, and this Trading Places works its magic with more panache and taste, more smiles and fewer laughs. With its handsome settings (and well-filmed banlieue sequences) it feels much too elegant and French for direct comparison with an "'80s Eddie Murphy movie" -- though the condescension in that comparison seems pointless. I strongly doubt that a "massive rewrite" by Weinstein & Co. will be an improvement.

It is sad to say that a film that is so hopeful is escapist, but its dream of unity between rich and poor, white and black is one that is as remote from being achieved collectively in Sarkozy's France as it is from coming to Obama's "post-racial" USA. The French have been understandably soothed by this classy and technically polished feel-good movie, and Harvey Weinstein is literally banking on Americans needing it too.

US critical response has been mixed (Metacritic 56). "You will laugh, you will cry, you will cringe," A.O. Scott of the NY Times wrote. Finding this fluent and elegant film cringe-worthy in a context of current Hollywood comedy seems pretty disingenuous; but the free ride given the tasteless and extreme Precious (Metacritic 79) shows how incongruous American film criticism can be when race matters are involved.

The Intouchables/Intouchables debuted at San Sebastian in September 2011, opened in France in November and in a dozen other countries in late 2011 and early 2012. French critics loved it as much as the public (Allociné 3.7), but the most hip and sophisticated ones (as usual, Cahiers du Cinéma, L'Humanité and Les Inrockuptibles) shook their heads, like Weissberg and Holden. First shown in the US at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in February, it was also part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, shown Tues. Apr. 26 and Thur., Apr. 26, 2012. Limited US theatrical release by Weinstein beginning May 25, 2012 (West Coast June 1).

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