How many filmmakers can boast their work has been castigated by both the mighty American showbiz publication Variety and the ultra-nationalist French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen? Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano are surely the only two: Their hit movie The Intouchables (Les Intouchables), which arrives in Canadian cinemas this month, is a project both wreathed in accolades and surrounded by controversy.
The Parisian directors based the film on the true story of the relationship between the paraplegic French businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his Algerian caregiver, reincarnating the servant as Driss, a happy-go-lucky Senegalese immigrant and petty criminal from Paris's notorious high-rise suburbs who only applies for the job to get a stamp on his unemployment insurance form. In the film, the mismatched pair change each other's lives as the demanding and depressive Philippe learns to lighten up while the irrepressible Driss learns to take responsibility for himself and others, but the depiction of the relationship has divided critics from audiences.
The film has been a massive hit with Europeans – 20 million people have seen it in France since it came out in 2011 – and earned actor Omar Sy a César, making him the first black ever to win France's Oscar. Some observers have seen the movie as a metaphor for the country itself, with an immobilized France, old and white, reinvigorated by the ethnic youth of the suburbs. When asked about that interpretation by a journalist, the anti-immigrant Le Pen rose to the bait and denounced any notion of France as a handicapped nation needing rescue through immigration.
On the other hand, American critics have been very uncomfortable with the depiction of Driss as someone utterly lacking in cultural knowledge and basic manners – he disrupts an opera performance with loud, derisive laughter – and especially with a scene in which Driss entertains Philippe by changing the music at a staid party and dancing wildly to some funk. Variety called the movie offensive, saying it "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens."
Nakache and Toledano can swat away Le Pen as one would a fly, but they are clearly stung by the American reaction and spent much of a recent interview in Toronto explaining how the film should be seen in a European rather than American context.
" C'est du politiquement correct," Toledano said. "It's political correctness with these Americans. You shouldn't say this; you shouldn't say that.... It's true Driss has less culture; he has less access to culture. That is what the film denounces, with humour.… We were a bit shocked that a film that defended tolerance would be treated like this. There is an American naiveté, to see everything thorough the lens of their own culture. They had slavery, but can't we ask them to see that we had a different history, a history of colonialism?
"And it's the scene where he dances that won Omar his César," he adds, "It's an act of friendship, the guy has no arms and legs, so Driss is his arms and legs."
Nakache and Toledano intend the movie as a statement about cultural co-existence, and found their story in a documentary about the wealthy Pozzo di Borgo, a French aristocrat who was rendered paraplegic by a hang-gliding accident in 1993 and then lost his wife to cancer three years later. He was rescued from despondency by an Algerian immigrant caregiver, Abdel Yasmin Sellou.
"We saw an incredible story between two men who never should have met. It was a story you never would have dared invent," Nakache said. When the pair approached Pozzo di Borgo for the rights to his story, which he has also published as a memoir, he made one stipulation.
"He didn't want to be viewed with pity, seen as less than human: He said make a comedy," Nakache said. "It was a good thing, because we only do comedy." (The pair work together writing and directing family comedies, including Tellement proches in 2009 and Nos jours heureux in 2006, both of which also featured Sy.)
They say they cast Sy as Driss because they wanted to work with the actor again, but the decision to turn a caregiver of Algerian origin into one who is Senegalese – effectively making the character blacker – has also been controversial. Again, Nakache and Toledano suggest that is an American reaction.
"In France, nobody even noticed. There's no distinction there between an Arab and an African," said Toledano, who adds that both he and Nakache are of North African heritage themselves. "They are at the same social level, living in the projects."
North American audiences can now judge the French story themselves; a Hollywood adaptation is also in the works. Europeans meanwhile are still flocking to the original: the directors figure its appeal has to do with the freshness of a comedy about a disability on the one hand, and with the familiarity of Driss on the other.
"It speaks to people," Toledano said. "They know a Driss, they see these big black guys in the street in Paris or Rome, but behind the stereotype the film shows his mother, his little brother, his neighbourhood, his context. We humanize him.... When they call us racist, they haven't understood a thing we have said."