’The Intouchables’ comes stateside... with an unexpected controversy

by Sean Au

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 23, 2012

A paraplegic millionaire needs a full time caretaker, but instead of hiring from a pool of qualified caregivers, he picks an ex-convict from the projects. The two men, one physically handicapped, the other disabled in the socio-economic sense, develop an inspiring friendship that continues till today. This real life story has been adapted into "The Intouchables," a comedy by a pair of French directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano that has become France's second highest-grossing film of all time and has excelled in the European and Asian markets.

Consider this, The Weinstein Company bought the U.S. rights to "The Artist" and "The Intouchables" before either film was released in France. The former has gone on to win five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin, while "The Intouchables" picked up the Best Actor prize in native France for charismatic Omar Sy at the French Cesars (their version of the Oscars). The film has also been honored by winning the Grand Prize at Tokyo International Film Festival and receiving the Audience Awards in the San Francisco International Film Festival and Nashville Film Festival.

"The Intouchables" hopes to reach a wide audience here in the U.S. by word of mouth, but the story which revolves around the friendship between a white aristocrat and his black caretaker already has some American critics up in arms with accusations of racism, something which surprises the French filmmakers themselves.

Variety reviewer Jay Weissberg said the film "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens." Over at The Atlantic, Jon Frosch echoed that, complaining that the movie "leans ... heavily on regressive culture-clash shtick and unimaginative stereotypes." Whether such comments are going to have an impact on the film’s American release remains to be seen.

Directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache talked to EDGE about their journey of making a comedy out of a serious topic and the controversy that surrounds the tale.

An unlikely friendship

EDGE: How did the story come about?

Eric Toledano: The story started in 2001 when we saw a documentary about this story on television. It is about this unlikely friendship between two people whose characteristics and backgrounds are at different extremes from the other. We tell ourselves that this story has all the elements to make into a film that can say something about our society, that can be a profound comedy, funny, and I hope, intelligent.

EDGE: How did you adapt this story to a feature length movie?

Olivier Nakache: Already, the two persons in real life have lived together for ten years. We compacted their experiences into under two hours on film and we wrote the script around these elements. We also made up some new things based on Omar Sy’s characteristics as well. We wrote the script with him in mind.

EDGE: Did you follow strictly to the script or did you allow your actors to improvise in this comedy?

Eric Toledano: We followed the script very strictly because it had been a very much thought out process. Yet, for every last take, we allow the actors to do it freestyle, to improvise. Most of the time, those takes end up on the cutting room floor. We are only happy with about ten percent of improvised takes.

Looking past the cliche

EDGE: What are the themes you emphasize on exploring in this film?

Eric Toledano: Friendship. The meeting of minds between two persons who are extremely different from one another. Also, how one’s outlook can change when one changes the way he sees another person.

Olivier Nakache: In French, we say we lower the reasoning, we look pass the cliche.

Eric Toledano: There is also this theme about people who may appear fragile can have the ability to become a hero. It may seem at first that someone in a wheelchair is not a hero of stature. He appears weak and broken, but he is the one with the human spirit. It may seem cheesy, as Americans would say, but we have used humor and comedy as weapons to win over the audience in a way that may not be politically correct.

EDGE: When you set out to do this film, have you always wanted to make it as a comedy?

Olivier Nakache: This is the fourth film that we directed together. All four of them are comedies. In fact, we want to treat this story as a comedy. It is still fresh to speak about this somewhat fearful subject in comedic tones. In any case, the person in real life, Philippe di Borgo told us that he only permits us to tell his life story only if we make it funny.

EDGE: How is this film different from your films before this?

Eric Toledano: The difference is that in our previous films, we were telling our own stories, something that we know well, about marriages, families, singlehood. Here, this is not our story, it’s someone else’s story. So it is an important step for us, a very different step. This is the first time we are telling stories through someone else’s limbs. It gives us another perspective on life, a different view of things when we are now around forty years old. We are taking a small step back to express ourselves through another person’s story. Maybe the stories of our lives are now less interesting to tell.

No separation

EDGE: Both of you are co-directors on the set. How is your collaboration process like?

Olivier Nakache: There is no separation, no specialty. We both did everything. We wrote the story together. We prepare the scenes together. We did everything together, every stage of the filmmaking process.

EDGE: What about the times when you disagree with each other?

Olivier Nakache: We fight each other.

Eric Toledano: Yes, we fight.

Olivier Nakache: Have you seen ultimate fighting?

EDGE: And who wins?

Olivier Nakache: The movie! The movie always wins!

Eric Toledano:The human!

Olivier Nakache: The human being!

EDGE: Are you surprised that this film has done so well in France?

Olivier Nakache: Of course!

Eric Toledano:Absolutely! Always very surprised. It is extremely humbling, especially by the proportion of its success. We are very happy and very proud.

Olivier Nakache: We are surprised in Germany, in Italy, and the most surprised in South Korea where it has done very well.

Eric Toledano:And maybe we will surprised by the United States? Maybe San Francisco? We do not know what to expect here. The best, I hope.

The Variety criticism

EDGE: What do you feel in this film that resonates so well with the French audience?

Eric Toledano:Like Olivier says, we make people laugh about the things that we fear. Disability can be a scare, in a way that when you see a disabled person, you may think, "I would never want to be in his shoes, never want to be always seated." This is a very human fear. Philippe confronts us with our own fragility, so do people living in the ghetto, in the suburbs, we fear falling down in the social order.

The film works because people come looking at something we fear and want to laugh at this fear which is very close to us. When we make a film, we say we hope you like it, you the journalist and to everyone else as well, but in the end, it is the public that decides, because when the public likes it, it is he who will tell others to go watch it, by word of mouth. We might have opened the film with crazy figures in the first week and we might have hoped that it continued to do well, but it is the moviegoers who will create more moviegoers.

EDGE: There has been this review in Variety that accuses the film of bringing back racism to the screens. What are your thoughts about that?

Eric Toledano:It is very cultural. For us, I have the impression the problem of the relationship between the blacks and whites in the United States is more complex than in other countries, maybe rooted in the past with issues rooted in slavery, etc.

Olivier Nakache: Notice that this critique has only come from the U.S. We have covered many countries but have never been accused of racism in our film. At first, we were really surprised, how can this person say something like that?

Eric Toledano:Especially that this film is a vehicle that values tolerance and justice. Especially that Omar Sy won the Best Actor Award at the Cesars (French equivalent of the Oscars), he is the first black actor in French history to have won the award. It is very humbling, but I think the explanation that we can find is that it is a real cultural issue, when it comes to racial relations between blacks and white, everything is touchy. A black person working for a white person is been viewed with a special angle, under a special prism. No other country sees it this way. Fortunately, not everybody sees it this way, not everybody is unhappy about this. This is not the case.

Beating Jean Dujardin

EDGE: Speaking of Omar Sy winning the Cesar, are you surprised that he beat Jean Dujardin ("The Artist") on his home turf?

Olivier Nakache: (laughs) Yes, we were surprised. Very very happy for Omar. Both of them are great actors. There is no doubt that Jean Dujardin has picked up all the awards around the world; but at home, it is Omar Sy who won.

Eric Toledano:(jokes) I think that Jean Dujardin has no more place at home to put all his prizes, so it is not a big deal for him. He cannot possibly have space in his apartment for all these awards.

EDGE: What do you hope the audience will experience through your movie?

Eric Toledano:To me, I hope that people here can have the same experience shared by the European audience. We propose you give us an hour and a half to submerge totally into the story. Forget about your daily life. Forget about what is in your head. Allow yourself to live another life through this film. Let the cinema propose an alternative way of living during this one and a half hours. Enter the life of someone who may be very different from yours. This was what I love about the cinema when I was young, and even now. I hope that people leave the theatre with a different view about disabled persons, about blacks, about people who live in the suburbs and no longer judge them, if you had judged them before.

Olivier Nakache: We had people leaving the cinema thanking us for making the film. That really warms our hearts. This is something rare. It is exactly because of this reason we try to travel with this film as much as we can, to come here, to see the reaction of the audience, to hear their laughter, whether they are American, Italian, or Spanish.

EDGE: This film has been snapped up by The Weinstein Company, do you have confidence that this film will do well?

Eric Toledano:We hope so. We are in good hands.

Olivier Nakache: We shall see. (Compared to "The Artist") we have dialogue and it is filmed in color. We have total confidence in TWC.

Eric Toledano:It’s an honor to be chosen by Weinstein Company especially before the release in France, he bought the movie. This means that he has ’the nose’ to know a good film. He bought this film and "The Artist" before either film was released in France.

"The Intouchables opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 25, 2012 and opens in major US film markets on June 1, 2012.

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