Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, co-writers and directors of “The Intouchables,” had to be feeling pretty good about themselves and their movie. A blockbuster in France, a hit throughout Europe, winners of Cesar (the French Oscars) and David di Donatello (Italian Oscars) awards, picked up for distribution in the United States by The Weinstein Co., “Intouchables” was riding high.
Then the American showbiz magazine Variety reviewed their film, which is about a rich paraplegic who hires a street thug of Senegalese descent as his in-home caregiver.
“Intouchables,” reviewer Jay Weissberg harrumphed, “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens.” Over at The Atlantic, Jon Frosch echoed that, complaining that the movie “leans … heavily on regressive culture-clash shtick and unimaginative stereotypes.”
The movie’s makers were taken aback. Nakache said “We were hurt and shocked” by these reviews, which didn’t fall in line with critics in France or other places the film has played. The two American critics – both of them based in Europe, “almost say that we are racists, and that could not be further from the truth.” Co-director Toledano said their film “has rapprochement, togetherness, as its ideals.” He, too, was baffled by the tack taken by these early notices.
“We see race as the wrong way to look at the movie,” Toledano said. “In France, the place of black people in our history is not the same as it is in the United States. I can appreciate the nature of race in America, what Spike Lee calls ‘The Miracle of the Negro,’ stereotypes. But things are not the same in France. And there are politically correct people who do not want to see the reality that is in front of them.”
The cultural chasm, Nakache said, is a product of both the difference in societies – “In France, we have no racial ghettos. Housing projects here are fully integrated” – and in the filmmakers’ love of American movies and American music.
“This is like our ‘Midnight Run’ or ‘48 Hours,’ a ‘buddy picture,’ ” Nakache said.
“We loved those films, and the music in our film – the soul, the funk, of America in the ’70s – is like our classical music,” Toledano added. He wants to know if it is racist to love something “that also happens to be the soundtrack of the housing projects of Paris – Earth, Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, Barry White.”
The filmmakers never envisioned this sort of response to a movie that started life as a French TV documentary they saw 10 years ago. “In Life and Death” was about a wealthy French man, Philippe, paralyzed by an accident, who hired Abdel, a street punk of Algerian descent, as his caregiver.
“We were terribly moved by just one scene,” Nakache remembers. “Abdel, the caregiver, lifts Philippe out of his bed, and holds him, face to face. This image was so touching, these men made so close by their situation, each one comfortable with the other. We thought, ‘We can’t invent a story like this.’ ”
They had worked with rising French star Omar Sy, so when they got around to making “The Intouchables” they changed the character’s name from Abdel to Driss, and his national heritage to Senegalese. But the basic themes would be the same.
“It took that accident for someone of Philippe’s background to meet someone like Abdel, and that was the story we wanted to tell,” Nakache said. “We met these two men, and it was obvious that each one had saved the other’s life.”
Toledano was more intrigued by the clash of classes this story represented.
“In Paris, you can drive five kilometers and pass from the world of the very, very rich to the housing projects of the poor,” Toledano said. “But these people, they never meet. It takes something tragic, like an accident, to force these two classes together.”
As “The Intouchables” reaches an American audience, its French filmmakers are hoping for the best from critics and from audiences. And they take comfort in realizing how the lens of race filters so much of American culture, including movies, from the works of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry to last year’s “The Help.”
“In America, this problem is older, and closer to everyone,” Toledano said. “Frankly, we’re a little worried for our film. But we know that race never came up in our preparing it, in filming it. We hope people realize that race is simply not the way to view it.”