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Hit French movie 'Intouchables' has some crying 'racism'

But the reaction from some U.S. critics has many French scratching their heads.

January 01, 2012|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • Kader Doumbia, 21, in his neighborhood in the Paris suburb of Bondy, where parts of "Intouchables" were filmed. Some critics have called the movie racist, but Doumbia disagrees. I loved the movie, and I could associate with it, he said.
Kader Doumbia, 21, in his neighborhood in the Paris suburb of Bondy, where… (Devorah Lauter, For The…)

Reporting from Bondy, France — Most everyone in the low-income housing projects in northern Bondy knows about "Intouchables," the hit French film about a poor black man from their neighborhood who is hired to take care of a rich white quadriplegic.

But as dark settled over the northeast Paris suburb's labyrinth of high-rise projects, few of the young men who huddled under awnings in a stark central square said they had actually seen the film.

Even though most knew of a cousin or friend who had played a bit part when scenes were shot in Bondy, "we're too poor to go to the movies," said Ibrahim, 28, who runs the kebab restaurant in the square and declined to give his last name to a stranger.

Around the country, however, the movie has been breaking box-office records. Weighed down by a slumped economy and the gloomy prospect of austerity measures, "Intouchables" (untouchables) offers a cheerful break from reality with its modern fairy tale.

The film is being hailed as a "cultural phenomenon." President Nicolas Sarkozy liked it so much that he reportedly wants to have the cast over for dinner at the Elysee Palace.

Yet even as the Cinderella story has audiences applauding, a few critics scolded its unrealistic take on the struggles of France's poor, as well as its "easy stereotypes" of minorities, shown through the fun-loving hero, Driss. Driss is of Senegalese origin, and with his charming wit — but also unabashed ignorance of fine French foods, art and music — he livens up the stuffy world of his wealthy counterpart, Philippe.

"This film dates to the 1930s, when it was thought the black man has no culture and spends his time laughing at everything," philosopher Jean-Jacques Delfour said after reviewing the film for the French daily Liberation.

But the French reviews were harmless flares compared with the bomb thrown by Variety critic Jay Weissberg, who wrote that the film "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens."

"Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down.'... It's painful to see," he wrote.

In the subsequent onslaught of defensive, bewildered French reactions on the Web and in mainstream media, Weissberg's opinion swiftly ballooned into the "American" response to the film, in another example of the contentious cultural sparks that can periodically fly between France and the United States.

"How could the Americans have considered a film we French loved so much as racist?" asked one journalist for France's RTL radio.

"Did we watch the same movie?" asked a commentator on the French AlloCine movie website, and another said it was "time to stop taking lessons from the Americans."

"In the Variety article, I perceive the expression of an inquisitorial spirit that, colored by paranoia, remains rather rare in France among journalistic critiques," said French philosopher and historian Pierre-Andre Taguieff, whose work for Paris' Sciences Po political research center has focused on racism and xenophobia. "This anti-racist extremism is, in my eyes, an American specialty."

Taguieff, in an email exchange, said he didn't find the film racist, but he recognized "social and ethnic cliches" in it, which he said "flattered" a sugared French perception of itself as a place where "the rich and the poor, the blacks and the whites can get along."

As they left a screening of the movie in Paris on a recent Sunday, two women of mixed French and African origin agreed the film made fun of ethnic cliches but avoided racism, because it glorified an individual, who they felt stole the show.

"Sure, I see that there's the black aspect to the character, but he is the real hero," said Eliane Cangou, 50. "It put the most value in the black man, and that is still rare to see here in movies. I felt Driss had the role that was superior to the white man's."

As for the scenes of Driss transforming a room full of classical music buffs into a dance party, "here in France," said Cangou's friend, Nicole Fabroni, "we'll always laugh at that."

"The film has to come out in America so that the people there make up their own minds about it," she said of the film, which is expected to be released in the United States next summer.

Among the northern Bondy residents interviewed, none who had seen the film felt the least bit offended by it.

"I loved the movie, and I could associate with it," said Kader Doumbia, 21, who was hanging out near the kebab restaurant with friends, talking in the cold. "We're like that: people who like to kid around and say how we feel."

Slowly, his initially reluctant friends agreed to speak to a journalist about the film, and erupted with praise for Driss, whom they recognized as one of them. (Actor Omar Sy, who plays Driss, grew up in similar suburbs.)

"It's just a different culture. We have fun in a different way. It's just how we are," said Booba Kay, 23, who said he also works with physically and mentally disabled people. "I could totally see myself in him."

As for criticism of the film's cliches, "you have to remember," Doumbia said, "it's still just the movies."

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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