‘Intouchables’ – A cynical use of disability and race to win Oscars or an honest attempt to amuse and uplift?

The last time I watched a major French blockbuster, I was a university law student. It was 2001 and I was packed into a cold cramped converted theatre in Durham city centre with a few friends. Wedged into our seats by our thick autumn coats and munching on an impossible supply of popcorn, we sat through one and a half hours of rich, high calorie Parisian cinematography.

Amelie was the story of a whimsical French waitress and her naïve and playful mission to improve the lives of the people around her – that is before her world is turned upside down by love. It was a light-hearted, romp though a rather antiquated version of the capital city. The mad scooter rides through the streets of Monmartre, lashings of humour and, a rather kooky romance had a cosy fairytale feel about it. Amelie was bohemian, eccentric and well… French. It left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling and I exited the cinema feeling happy and uplifted.

'Intouchables' hits UK screens on Friday 21 September

‘Intouchables’ hits UK screens on Friday 21 September (See Trailer)

A multitude of other movie-goers agreed with me. But the critics were somewhat divided. Some were captured by the film’s charm and character, whilst others felt the plot was weak and too sickly.

Just over ten years on, another French film has managed to make the short but difficult journey across La Manche and it is causing a similar polarisation of opinion. ‘Intouchables’ is directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. It is the story of a millionaire quadriplegic, Philippe, and his unlikely friendship with his poor black live-in carer, Driss, from the rough banlieues of Paris.

The film has already attracted a host of awards including the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix award for best film at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Furthermore Omar Sy received the Cesar Award for Best Actor on 24 February 2012 for the role of Driss, defeating Jean Dujardin who was nominated for ‘The Artist’. More notable still, is the fact that On 20 March 2012, ‘Intouchables’ became the highest-grossing movie in a language other than English cashing in at $281 million.

A triumph then? Not if certain critics are to be believed. Just as Amelie was regarded by some as too sugary, there are those movie journalists like the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, who are unimpressed by the unabashed corniness of ‘Intouchables’. Others are more acerbic. “You will laugh; you will cry; you will cringe,” snorts A.O. Scott at the New York Times.

The doubters have a long list of reasons why this film should not work, not least the English translation of its title (‘Untouchable’ in the UK and ‘The Intouchables’ in the US). But in truth, their grumblings boil down to one rather cynical view: That the film has used the two major issues of racial inequality and disability, as a sure fire guarantee to box tick the directors to Oscar-winning glory.

I find this this a poor assessment. Yes, one could argue that the story of a disabled rich white man having his life enriched by an able-bodied poor black man from the ghetto may appear clichéd. Then again, the screen play is based on a true story. But even if it wasn’t, so what?!

One critic was unconvinced by how the life of the disabled Philippe, could be so drastically changed by smoking a bit of pot, flirting with women and generally messing around. Well, maybe our journo friend has not been confined to a wheelchair for an extended period of time.

When all said and done, the criticisms seem a little lame and whiney especially when one realises how the popularity of the film has grown in the absence of any real media hype. Yes, the film may wear its box office credentials on its sleeve, it may even seem corny at times. But to focus on the black / white; rich / poor; able bodied / disabled aspects of the movie is misleading.

For my part, the film is less of a story about disability and racial inequality and more about how people can rise to positions of responsibility when given true trust. It also demonstrates that whatever ones hardships, there is a life out there worth exploring. Sometimes, it just takes someone from a completely different background to open one’s eyes a little.

It should be pointed out that ‘Intouchables’ is not without fans from the respected press. “For once, the hype is justified,” writes Dalya Alberge for the Guardian. “This is a charming, uplifting French drama – an irreverent, humorous take on disability, closely drawn from real-life.”

 

But don’t take her word for it… or indeed mine. ‘Intouchables’ hit UK screens on Friday 21 September. So go and see it!

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