[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
This is the runaway box office hit in France this fall. Over 10 million tickets sold in one month, which is huge. The lines for the movie at the many cinemas showing it stretch around the block. It’s a feelgood buddy film, a comedy about a middle-aged zillionaire quadriplegic played by François Cluzet, who lives in a villa in the 16th arrondissement and engages a black banlieue ex-con layabout as his caretaker. The latter is played by Omar Sy, a stand-up comic and actor—in movies I would never think of seeing—of Senegalese origin and who hails from Trappes, a tough Paris banlieue with lots of poor immigrants from the African continent. Sy is popular among the younger generation; my daughter—a senior in high school—and her friends are fans of his and have all seen the movie. Sy will no doubt win a César for his performance and become France’s black movie icon. I thought the pic was funny enough—though the audience laughed more than I did—and touching in parts, particularly at the end (it’s based on a real-life story). French reviews are tops (with some notable exceptions). The movie is full of bons sentiments but is inoffensive, light entertainment. It’s hardly a chef d’oeuvre, that’s for sure.
Maybe I’ve lived in France too long, or have just come to view black-white racial dynamics differently from the way they are outre-Atlantique. Variety’s Jay Weissberg simply hated the pic. Money quote
Though never known for their subtlety, French co-helmers/scripters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have never delivered a film as offensive as “Untouchable,” which flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens. The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights, 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.
Ouch! The critic at Hollywood Reporter was less severe, though only somewhat, praising the performances of Sy and Cluzet but calling the film “a shamelessly manipulative French crowd pleaser.” Aïe! Looks like we have a transatlantic cultural clash here. The Variety review mentions the 1980s Eddie Murphy-Dan Ackroyd hit ‘Trading Places’. Now that was a funny movie!
Another French hit movie this fall—both critically and at the box office—is ‘Polisse’, a documentary-like drama focusing on the child protection unit of the Paris police. The Hollywood press liked this one—it won the Prix du Jury at Cannes—far more than the above (particularly here and here, a little more critically here and here). Friends of mine whose taste I respect loved it but my feelings were mixed. The cast was good, notably Karin Viard and the not yet well-known beurette actress Naidra Ayadi, but I thought some of the scenes were overly theatrical and histrionic, or simply did not ring true (e.g. there was one amusing scene of the Ayadi character giving a Maghrebi male immigrant a piece of her mind in dialectical Arabic; what she said was great but I can’t imagine such a thing ever happening inside a police station). One of the Hollywood press reviews compared ‘Polisse’ to the ‘The Wire’—the most brilliant series in the history of television—which I thought was absurd. ‘The Wire’ it is not, not by a long shot. One of the problems I had with the film was the way it portrayed the police, how they go about their work, and the way they interact with the public and deal with persons under interrogation. On the latter, there was often a lack of professionalism, or what I consider to be as such. This may well reflect reality, as I have long asserted that the French police are among the worst in the Western world (I avoid saying the worst only because I lack knowledge on how the police operate elsewhere), but I would need an expert view on this. I will come back to the subject of the French police at a later date, after I have read some of the academic literature on the subject, and particularly this new book.
UPDATE: Le Monde had an item on Friday on the screening of ‘Intouchables’ in La Courneuve, a heavily immigrant populated banlieue in the poor and heavily immigrant neuf-trois. The audience—almost all of African and Maghrebi origin, and mainly young—loved the movie. Thunderous applause at the end. (December 4)
2nd UPDATE: An analysis in Libération argues that ‘Intouchables’ is “a sort of veiled propaganda for the social policies of Nicolas Sarkozy.” (December 6)
3rd UPDATE: I have a follow-up post on ‘Intouchables’ here. (March 15, 2012)