Les Intouchables, a French film directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano was released in the United States on May 25th 2012 with the literally translated name, The Untouchables. The movie tells the true story of Driss (Omar Sy), a “streetwise hoodlum,” and Philippe (François Cluzet), a “pallid aristocrat.” Driss applies to work for the uptight, paralyzed Philippe in order to continue collecting government benefits.
Les Intouchables broke box office records in France but received a myriad of criticism upon its release in the United States. One of the movie’s most vocal critics was A. O. Scott. In his piece, Helping a White Man Relearn Joie de Vivre that ran in the New York Times Scott claims that the movie is cliché, predictable and racially insensitive. In his own words, “It is possible to summarize the experience of watching The Intouchablesin nine words: You will laugh; you will cry; you will cringe. The caricatures are astonishingly brazen, as ancient comic archetypes—a pompous master and a clowning servant right out of Molière—are updated with vague social relevance, an overlay of Hollywood-style sentimentality and a conception of race that might kindly be called cartoonish.”
A. O. Scott’s critique of Les Intouchables elicited the following response from the former Mac Weekly Arts Editor, Maya Weisinger:
I would like to offer some relief to the film, “The Intouchables,” which has been receiving lashings from American publications the second it was released in American theatres. (Excuse me if that was too racially-charged for any of you.)
Before people go Uncle Tomming this film out of view, let’s take this moment to expose some root flaws in its criticisms. I have seen this film being likened to “The Help” or “The Blindside.” While clever for critics to draw comparison on two movies in different countries, different languages, and different genres on the sole similarity that they feature black actors in major roles, I will have to put my foot down for this type of oblivion.
At its core French racial politics is a whole other bag of fun than American racial politics. And I believe anyone who has had a U.S. History lesson or, perhaps, read the New York Times knows that. Nutshell American history tells us the story of our country’s infrastructure and social politics riding on the backs of Black African slaves and their relationships with American Whites are significant to how we discuss race relations in America today. Nutshell French history tells us that Black immigration has been a part of French history and infrastructure for hundreds of years, complicating the relationship between nationality and race with French Whites.
I am not demeaning hundreds of years of history, struggle, lived experiences or social significance. Nor am I excusing or overlooking the discrimination, hate, and inequity both countries house as a result. However, to apply tropes of American racialization to French sociopolitical culture is simply inappropriate. And to push this sentiment even further by likening this slice-of-life production to a racist-laden affront is ridiculous. Even though we borrowed the concept of “cliché” from the French, I don’t think they were expecting us to give back by imposing our own on their cultural production. It’s not that race isn’t politicized in France, it is that it is politicized in a completely different way than in the United States and it is unfair to make harsh critiques when using a hammer from the ol’ American toolbox.
On that note, I’d like to point out that, yes, obviously his movie DOES make a racial statement in one way or another. However, the screenplay was not angling for race to be the defining factor between these two complex characters. Perhaps if one was compassionate enough to look past the skin color of the main characters they would see that they are both comprised of a humanized quality that we so yearn to (and so often do not) see in films today: obstinate individuals who rely on others to survive and looking for someone to understand and not pity them. Perhaps if some of us were not so busy writing flaccid reviews about how stereotypical it was that the main character was loud and smoked marijuana, they would see that the pain the main characters shared was similar and that this poignant portrayal made no effort to ease the pains of a country’s racial hardships, but ease the pain of everyday people living their lonely lives and looking for release.
Of course the theme of “difference” courses through the veins of this movie: Class difference, cultural difference, lifestyle difference, etc. But these differences were not in place to claim a political stance. Making this assumption shows a lack of insight and a stagnation of how we, as Americans, view race. “Difference” does not have to imply that there is a racial wrong being committed and I think a lot of the flak this movie is getting from critics is in an impulse reaction to be shocked at any interracial storyline.
I can understand how at the very skimmings of the surface this film appears as a black urban dunce-ling serving the every need of an extravagant limp aristocrat. To walk away with nothing more than this contorted perception is to have missed the point and intent of the film completely. To base critique on the sole fact that the character serving the disabled man is black is to make a vast blanket statement on race itself. I say we save the war on race for where it’s actually needed (see: Tyler Perry) and keep it out of the sphere of ventures that actually have a statement on the greater experience of humanity: pain and love. To the critics who felt this film demoralized our discourse on race I suggest watching the movie again and take the American Exceptionalism away from the equation and stick it elsewhere.
To access the full text of A.O. Scott’s article go to http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/movies/the-intouchables-arrives-from-france.html?_r=1&