French film Intouchables saluted for depicting life in the Paris suburbs

Intouchables storms the box office as critics hail it as a comedy masterpiece

It's the surprise French box office hit of the year: a caustic comedy about a quadriplegic aristocrat and his awkward, black home-help from one of Paris's poor, suburban high-rise ghettoes.

Intouchables – or the Untouchables – has confounded French critics who dreaded the possibility of a cliche-ridden, ham-fisted take on the poor suburban "banlieue", race and disability. Instead, the film has been hailed as a masterpiece, and the comedy of the year. It sold 2m tickets in under a week. Paris crowds are queueing around the block and pre-booking tickets. It is set to open in 40 countries, including the United States in March, where Harvey Weinstein has bought an option for an American remake.

"Is this the new Amélie?" asked the daily Liberation, comparing it to the whimsical French romantic comedy that captivated foreign audiences 10 years ago. Critics are drawing another comparison with the recent comedy hit about hard done-by French northerners, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis.

Based on a true story, Intouchables tells how a millionaire left quadriplegic after an accident – played French arthouse cinema star, Francois Cluzet – hires the unlikely home-help, Driss, who is from the poor suburbs and just out of prison. It is described as "a feelgood buddy movie" of friendship across the race divide, but also as Le Monde put it, an uncomfortable reminder of modern France, "a society running at two speeds": white Paris bourgeoisie and the deprived, multiracial banlieues.

After less than a week on cinema screens, the film is already being saluted for revolutionising how French society views itself. Five years after riots ravaged the high-rise ghettoes and led to a state of national emergency, little has been done to assuage the hopelessness of a generation of young French people ghettoised and marginalised because of their skin colour or parent's immigrant origins. Mainstream French cinema has barely broached the subject since the 1995 acclaimed black and white film La Haine, or Hate, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, with rare recent exceptions like the across-the-divide farce, Neuilly Sa Mère!, directed by Gabriel Julien-Laferrière.

Omar Sy, the wisecracking young actor taking his first big film role in Intouchables, has been championed by papers like Le Monde as one of the only black actorsin French cinema, which lags behind the US on providing racially diverse roles. "He is our Eddie Murphy," announced Le Figaro's critic Eric Neuhoff.

Sy, who is from a large family of African-origin, grew up on a high-rise estate in Yvelines outside Paris and for the past five years has been one half of a duo in a comedy sketch slot on the French premium pay television channel Canal Plus.

"I don't want to be seen as the only black. I'm just another guy," he has said. However, he claims that more than his race, he feels a sense of responsibility towards depicting the banlieue fairly. He felt the suburban ghettoes have got worse in recent years. "We knew it would be difficult, that we'd have to fight twice as hard as anyone else, but we had dreams. Now [the young people] don't even allow themselves that," he said.

Patrick Lozes, the former head of Cran, France's umbrella group of black associations, and now seeking to stand for president to defend diversity, said: "This film is a very rare, positive story which gives a favourable image of these estates, showing that they are part of little France like any other place, with their problems and difficulties, but happiness too. I know from my own story – growing up on an estate with a divorced, single mother, that this film can give hope. Omar Sy's character is a positive and a first. There will be a before and an after this character in French cinema."

The hit comes after a good run of French films inspired by real-life stories in recent months, notably La Guerre est déclarée, the acclaimed story of a young couple facing the cancer of their child, and Polisse, a Cannes film festival success about the daily life of a police brigade dealing with the protection of young children.

Christophe Narbonne, a film critic at the French magazine Premiere, said Intouchables was a sensation because of good writing, acting and directing but also its subtle, British-style humour.

"In France we're used to popular homegrown French comedy, specific French gags and easy laughs. This is very Anglo-Saxon slapstick, a humour which is both absurd and subtle, something which is working more and more in France today," said Narbonne.


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Arson attack halts John Travolta film in Paris

Luc Besson's From Paris With Love cancelled after 10 stunt cars were set alight during night-time rampage

Lizzy Davies in Paris

14, Oct, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Young French film-makers opt for gritty realism
Spate of new releases including Bande de Filles deal with bleaker side of life in aim to raise social awareness

Anne Penketh in Paris

26, Oct, 2014 @2:58 PM

Article image
Oscar tip heaps loud praise on silent French film

Arthouse movie The Artist could become first silent film in 80 years to win an Academy Award

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

30, Nov, 2011 @7:36 PM

Director breaks French taboo with film tackling Algerian war
While Hollywood produced dozens of Vietnam war epics and is now tackling Iraq, the French film industry has shied away from making gun-toting action movies about its own recent war history.

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

03, Oct, 2007 @11:06 PM

Article image
Acclaimed French film director Alain Resnais dies aged 91
Arthouse director rode crest of French new wave movement of 1960s and was still making films as he reached 90

Anne Penketh in Paris

02, Mar, 2014 @1:07 PM

Article image
Outrage as Polanski film nominated for 12 'French Oscars'
Campaigners say Césars are acclaiming ‘an abuser and rapist on the run’

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

29, Jan, 2020 @2:47 PM

Article image
Paris lockdown leaves streets stuck in 1942 for abandoned film set
Two locations frozen in period of Nazi occupation after coronavirus interrupts filming

Kim Willsher

30, Mar, 2020 @2:33 PM

Article image
François Hollande embroiled in row over French film industry union rights
Independent film-makers warn that improved pay and conditions will mean ‘death warrant’ for arthouse cinema

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

23, Aug, 2013 @5:30 PM

Article image
Bastille Day film pulled from French cinemas after Nice truck attack
Thriller starring Idris Elba as CIA agent thwarting terror attack in Paris withdrawn in respect for victims and families

Haroon Siddique

17, Jul, 2016 @11:05 AM

Article image
French actor Cécile Cassel shocked by 'hijack' of film by Italy's far right

Barbarossa, her latest film, being used as propaganda tool by Northern League party

Tom Kington in Rome

29, Sep, 2009 @5:59 PM