'The Intouchables' Review: Only an American Critic Could Find Racism Where None Exists

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The Intouchables Review: Only an American Critic Could Find Racism Where None Exists

By Dustin Rowles | Film Reviews | July 31, 2012 | Comments ()


The Intouchables debuted last year in France and quickly became the second most successful French film at their box office, and in doing so, the feel-good comedy about the friendship between a quadriplegic millionaire and his caretaker -- a poor black guy from the Paris projects -- raised few eyebrows and stirred little controversy. The movie was, however, so successful that it became part of the national conversation there, helping to provide an alternative to the Sarkozy narrative on race, immigration, and the wealthy.

In America, on the other hand, it's been seen as racist by at least one critic, who unfortunately has become the defining American voice on the film. Jay Weissberg from Variety accused the filmmakers of trafficking in "Uncle Tom racism," noting that the black character, Driss, embodied "all the usual stereotypes about class and race," stereotypes that never occurred to 45 million Europeans that saw the film before Weissberg.

The directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, for obvious reasons, were stung by the accusation that the character played by Omar Sy -- who won the French equivalent of the Oscar for his role -- embodied racist stereotypes, particularly given that the movie is based on a true story. "You have to give a question to your mind before to say bulls**t like this," Toledana said in an interview with MSN. "This is a movie that is fighting against racism and to give hope and a new look about each other ... To get an article like this and a review like this, perhaps [you are] a little duped about yourself."

Though the allegations of racism never occurred to me in watching the film, knowing that the Weinstein Company -- which released The Intouchables stateside -- are already developing an American remake did strike some worry that perhaps a Chris Tucker remake with, say, Adam Sandler, would tackle the socioeconomics of The Intouchables central relationship with the blunt force of a backseat hate f*ck. I'm concerned, too, that they'll take a film with already fairly broad strokes and embiggen them.

The Intouchables is not a particularly smart or complex movie, but it is a winning one. Omar Sy plays Driss, a Senegalese ex-con living in the projects. He applies for a job as Phillippe's caretaker because he knows he won't get it, and he needs three job rejections before he can receive his benefits. Philippe, exhausted with the same brand of pitying, humorless caretakers that never stay on for more than a few months, decides to give Driss a shot, in part because Driss doesn't show him any pity. In fact, Driss is not shy about making Philippe's disability a source of comedy, and often forgets about his disability long enough to treat him like a real person.

Aside from some initial misgivings over having to fit him with leggings each morning (for blood flow) and evacuate his bowels by hand, Driss grows into a capable and compassionate caretaker. He and Philippe form an unlikely bond, and exchange socioeconomic interests in the manner you'd expect from this kind of film: Philippe introduces Driss to classical music, opera and abstract painting, and Driss introduces Philippe to marijuana, hookers, and Kool and the Gang. The contrivances are straight out of the Hollywood playbook, but Sy and François Cluzet shroud them in honesty.

Driss also provides Philippe assistance in returning to the dating world, while Philippe presents Driss with a lot of unfamiliar experiences: They fly in a private jet, they go paragliding, and they get around is expensive sports cars. And yes, while Driss does work as a caretaker for a wealthy white man, it's a far cry from Viola Davis in The Help. He's never subjugated; in fact, it is the quadriplegic Philippe in the position of inferiority, but Nakache and Toledano do a remarkable job of presenting them on equal footing. Both characters gain from the experience: Driss become a responsible adult, qualities he takes back to his own family, and Philippe develops a sense of humor and a reason for living. Charges of racism are absurd particularly for a film like The Intouchables so sincere in its attempts to show both socioeconomic and racial diversity.

Ultimately, it's a fairly predictable film, but the familiar beats and tropes do little to detract from the Omar Sy and François Cluzet's outstanding performances, nor the movie's large heart. It's a crowd-pleaser, very funny at times, and a rousing testament to the transformative power a single friendship. My only real quibble with The Intouchables is that the prologue scene at the end of the film showing the two real people upon whom the film is based has a funny way of stealing some of the affection I felt for the honest depictions of the fictional characters.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • celery

    Without having seen the movie, I'm not going to jump into this one.

    But it certainly reminds me of my thoughts when I saw "Taken" - as an American, the bad guys are just generic foreign bad guys, whatever. But as somebody who's taken classes on French immigration issues, hot damn is that movie unfortunate in its choices of villain.

  • Candie

    Also, I'm starting to get really sick of the way the Us portrays France as a racist and bitter former colonialist country every chance they get. It shows in the comments I'm reading right now, on this thread. Yes France was a colonialist country, and yes, we have racism issues (I lived in the south side of Chicago, don't tell me the US has a better understanding of race relations than we do). Monkymack or whatever, do you think you'd be asked your papers in Arizona? It's not a French problem, it's a humanity problem. By the way, we are addressing the problem. Have you ever watched a political/cultural/literary tv show while you were in France? We have them every day, on every channel, and we discuss racial/social inequalities ALL THE TIME. Omar Sy has been on a few of these shows and instead of discussing his movies, they wind up getting carried away and discussing just THAT. We talk about racials issues all the fucking time, and just because some condescending Americans vacationed in Paris and didn't bother picking up a newspaper of any significant value other than French Vogue, that doesn't mean we don't address them. We have advocacy groups, we have people of arabic descent in the government, we have sections of ministries dedicated only to racial inequalities, we have influential writers/actors of African descent.

    And Matty, not every culture deals with race the same way. There's
    integration, acculturation, assimilation, and all countries have
    different viewpoints on the matter. We all have racism problems and we're all trying to fix them, in OUR OWN way. Cut us some slack.

    FINALLY, when you talk to a French person and they tell you "we don't have a race problem" it's either because 1) they actually think we don't and in that case they're woefully misinformed, 2) they mean "we don't have THE SAME race problem". And the second is true. They most likely mean "we don't have the same issues, and we don't deal with them the same way".

  • Alx

    Nailed it. As an added point, if someone watches Intouchables without taking into account that the French society is different than the American one, he's doing it wrong.
    Globalization is a real thing obviously, but countries are still different. For instance, I'm currently working in Germany, and even though I live next to the border (seriously, 50km between my place in France and my office in Germany), I'm always surprised by how German people behave and react to stuff. Long story short, don't be obnoxious, think outside the box, it's not because it shocks the American way of thinking that it's wrong.

    PS: that last sentence should not be seen as anti-American, if this would have happened in Country X I would have said "from Country X".

  • Candie

    I'm a French woman with an African father (I know, I may have lost all credibility by starting out with that, but I swear i'm not trying to use my nationality as an argument of authority). I was living in the US when the movie came out and all of my friends told me to find a way to see it (I didn't, I had to wait until I came home). I watched the movie and it made sense culturally. We have a huge African (North African as well as Sub-Saharan) population, and we also used to have a big problem with racism endemic to the government (it's getting increasingly better with a left-wing president).

    I loathe movies that are also cultural phenomenons about "understanding" in France, because it's a huge trend (bienvenue chez les chtis, a movie about my hometown of Lille, which was sweet but condescending and really bad, for instance , but there are a few that caught my eye. Le nom des gens (roughly translated as "people's names", but I think it's "the names of love" in English or something) is about a girl who sleeps with right wing racists to convert them to her lefty ideas, and it's a fun watch, with two great actors in the lead. And Intouchables.

    I understand why some might think it's a French Driving Miss Daisy. But we don't have the same history. There is still a lot of resentment/racism, and there are a lot of similarities between France and the US, but we don't have the same viewpoint when it comes to race. I agree with Alx. Poor people tend to come from the "banlieue", and sadly, a lot of black people/arabs live there (we have a big issue with social ladder climbing). And if you watch the movie in French, he's not represented as black, he's represented as someone from the banlieue (his idiosyncrasies, his language etc, he could be my cousin, and my cousin's white). There is a fair amount of self-righteousness in Intouchables, but I agree with you, it's fun and earnest enough for people to enjoy. And Cluzet/Sy are amazing actors (Ne le dis à personne is one of my favorite French movie of the aughts).

    Also, French cinema has a lot to offer and it seems sad that only one movie every 5 years is noticed by the rest of the world. Ironically, I found the article annoying and extremely condescending (I read it in its French translation but I'll read it again). Apparently, the French audience does not "think", or something. Yep, right in our stupid French faces.

  • Will

    Yes, just what the world needs lectures from Americans on the evils of racism.

  • mslewis

    Damn people, it's just a freaking movie. If you don't want to see it, don't, but don't spoil things for the rest of us. The movie is funny and fun to watch. And every country is racist so don't jump on the French. Geesh!! Sometimes people make me want to gag.

  • Just see the movie. It's hilarious, the acting is stellar and it has a huge heart. Judge it however you like, but don't base your opinion on the reviews.

  • Guest

    Just like I really don't need some guy telling me what is and what isn't sexism or misogyny (derp!), I'm not sure us non-African-background folks get to make the ultimate pronouncement on whether or not this flick's got some racism-ist-y issues--or worse, whether or not it's a worthwhile discussion to be having.

    This is just me, however.

    Your parameters may vary.

  • John G.

    Black guy introduces white guy to drugs and hookers, while rich white guy teaches poor black guy about high culture, while black guy wipes his ass? Nope, no racism here.

  • Mohammed

    Uh, its rich vs poor. Not White vs Black

  • John G.

    It's both.

  • Alx

    Not exactly, it's rich vs. poor. The problem is that in France, Rich=White and Poor=Black (or any minority). I'm saying this as a white French dude. The social ladder is not working over here, and that's tackled by the movie.

  • Matty

    "Philippe introduces Driss to classical music, opera and abstract painting, and Driss introduces Philippe to marijuana, hookers, and Kool and the Gang."

    I honestly can't tell if you're being satirical, because this sounds like Colbert defending this against racism. If you are, I can breathe easy, and you can take delight knowing you trolled me for a minute there.

    However, if you are not, I feel you need to do some serious reading about the effects of French colonialism on West African nations and the seriously endemic and vitriolic racism France suffers from as a result.

    Again, I hope I am super dense today and you were being sarcastic, mocking the blatant racism in this film, or you need to take a good hard look at your white privilege and deal with it.

  • Am A Teur

    I can't like this comment enough. Seriously, while I love this site, Dustin and Johanna sometimes seem to revel in their white privilege. And don't forget the rest of Europe who had colonies around the world. Check out "King Leopold's Ghost" for a view of Belgium's destructive path in Africa. European's like to claim that they don't have the same past as America with the slave trade, but they sure as sh*t profited from it. Colonization somehow doesn't count as 'slavery', but it smells like it. And if those former colonials want a part in the former colonizer? They'd better be white.

  • Hiro_the_Eighth_Samurai

    Sometimes? They carry that with them at all times, and it colors the way they view everything, even if it's not readily obvious. Every white person I've met (even the ones who try to understand racism and acknowledge that it indeed is perpetuated by societal institutions in America) are quick to deny or downplay incidents of racism. Why do they do that? Because institutional racism and white privilege benefits them, and people exposing racism in America cuts into their white privilege and exposes them and white society at large as perpetuating systematic racism.

  • Ruthie O

    Wordy McWorderson. What is disappointing is that many commenters have pointed this out, and some of the writers on this site refuse to make any meaningful change towards acknowledging and addressing their privilege.

    Also, Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" should be required reading for EVERYONE EVER: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/f...

  • Milly

    The question about colonies forgets the part that ALL european countries have at one time or another been invaded, conquered, repopulated and yet have grown strong to be in a position to go out and explore and conquer. I know that's by the by - and yes, the broad strokes of cultural exchange within this film may cause outcries of stereotypes rather than negatively protrayed racist tones - but it is something to remember.

    Yes, I'm English. By way of Irish and Scottish parents, whose mother is by way of Spanish settlers in Ireland, who was by way of Moors settling in Spain who was who was etc etc and whose father is by way of the settling of romans in northern england (who migrated to Scotland) by way of Normans, by way of Vikings, by way of picts, by saxons, by angles by etc etc.

    Colonisation wasn't invented by European countries, nor was it perfected - hello Genghis Kahn and the Mongols - and as such new world/white guilt can't really cover such a common aspect of civilisation.

  • Matty

    Just because colonialism and racism happened a million times in the past, continues to happen rampantly today, and will in all likelihood persevere into the future; that doesn't make it okay. Nor does it change the fact that although Western Europeans may well have been oppressed in the past, they are oppressors/ privileged with institutionally enforced advantage in the present. This doesn't make them inherently immoral, just more insulated against how race works currently and therefore more likely to accidentally or ignorantly fall prey to the racist ideology of societies subconciously, because racism does not hurt them in the same immediate ways. To ignore that and not call it out when it reveals itself is an ethical breach to all those who claim to try and make the world a more equitable and moral place. Which is not to say I'm perfect. I fuck up dealing with race all the time. One cannot be raised in society and not be affected by racism. It's just staying aware and recognizing that in this area, like all parts of life, a person must engage in a systematic process of self examination, dialogue with others and subsequent attempts at self improvement.

  • Guest

    Well said, Matty.

  • Milly

    At no point did I say that colonisation was morally right, merely acknowledged that it has been part and parcel of life since time immemorial. I was making the point that others jump in and focus purely on English, Spanish, German, French, Dutch, Belgian & Portuguese actions and forget those of African, Asian and American countries/civilisation.

    I think your reference to superiority of Western Europeans "privileged with institutionally enforced advantage" doesn't assist matters given its factual inaccuracy. I merely have to note the web address of the site I'm on to see the growth of a colonised land, and also drive to the petrol station and see the financial powers of other former colonies, not to mention the financial power houses within Asia that at one time or another were under European flags.

  • Bedewcrock

    That's quite a broad brush you're applying to the history of colonization.

  • Milly

    Given the expanse of time, only a broad brush is appropriate within a discussion board.

  • Bedewcrock

    i see. broad brush = inciting discussion board war! everyone's a victim so no one person can ever really be victimized ever again!

    i'll go research my Genghis Khan strategy right now.

  • SugarSmak

    I saw this a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's nice to see a light movie without explosions and vapid, busty actresses for a change. I thought the lead actors were fantastic - especially the devastatingly handsome Omar Sy (and the supporting cast as well - Anne Le Ny and Audrey Fleurot were great as Philippe's nurse and gal Friday). It's sad a critic had to go and muck it all up with cries of racism; like you, Dustin, I saw no such thing. Highly recommended.

  • Bedewcrock

    I'm not sure I can give the directors of this movie the benefit of the doubt because in my experience race tends to be glossed over or rarely confronted in French cinema. Additionally, many French (white) people I've spoken to say racism is not an issue in France. However, I have spoken with other French people who aren't white (3rd & 4th generation immigrant yet they're still considered immigrants) that have spoken about their experiences with discrimination (both racial and cultural). I'm not obtuse enough to say that this doesn't exist in every population in the world, it's just my opinion the French culture and communities tend to not openly discuss race and/or confront the complexities of their own racial bias.*

    *just might be my experience (however limited).

  • Munkymack

    Which is to say, I agree with you, Bedewcrock

  • Munkymack

    As a non-french white person who has lived in Paris for two years, I feel qualified to add my two cents: there is a whole lot of unacknowledged racism here, and sometimes it's acknowledged, too. It spans from name calling to racial profiling, and the French Nationalist party has racism as one of its party planks.

    Two quick stories: I'm here on an expired Visa, and was worried initially that the cops might demand my papers (which they can legally do at any time), since I'm very obviously not French. Multiple French friends, both white and non-white, said the same thing: "You are the wrong color to have to worry."

    I also got mugged (ok, it was more of an attempted mugging, the fuckers didn't get away with anything) three months ago. Everyone I told immediately asked the same question: "Were they black or Arab?" as if those were the only two choices. When I said no, it was some white kids, they were thoroughly surprised.

    That being said, I loved Intouchables, and the only racism present in the film is the racism of every day Parisien life.

  • The Other Agent Johnson

    I would posit that if you told me either of those stories, but substituted the US for France, and Latino for Arab, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.

  • Munkymack

    My thoughts exactly. I feel the only difference is in the US, parts (not all, but parts) of our society are willing to stand up and say out loud "we have a problem with racism." That acknowledgement isn't really made here in France, as far as I've seen.

  • Stephen Nein

    I've found it fascinating that Midwesterners (W of Mississippi is Midwest to me) will similar things about class & race.

  • BarbadoSlim

    Hmmmmmm, backseat hatefuck you say...?

    And yeah this shit is racist as hell.

  • ,

    Man, it's good to see you back in fine fettle.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't think it's a question of "only an American". He was viewing the film through a narrow lens. He neglected to consider that it's a foreign film. But I think it's a fair question to ask whether certain foreign films speak in a worthwhile fashion to an American audience - and not because we're dumb Mercans. We have certain cultural tropes, and the movie unfortunately landed within them for him. Someone watching The Help in France is not likely to see it in the divisive light we do.

  • The Other Agent Johnson

    He was viewing the film through a narrow lens. He neglected to consider that it's a foreign film.

    A professional, full-time film critic for a publication as renowned as Variety should, quite frankly, know better.

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