Is “Intouchables,” France’s choice to compete for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, France’s best?

France submitted one of the most profitable and popular films, if not the most, in its recent history, Intouchables, as its entry in the Best Foreign Language film category for the Oscars.  That’s great, and maybe problematic: it sparked controversy in the U.S. because its lead character, Driss, reflects to America’s most chronic persistent racial stereotypes.  The New York Times wrote about and criticized it in the spring.

In America race is one of the hardest, most awkward, most personal and most prickly subjects to raise, much less confront.  When I think about Intouchables, on one hand, I understand the nearly universal enthusiasm and delight in response to it, based on a true life story.  It’s an exuberant tale that joins two of the least likely men, from two of the edges of society.  On another hand, if you’re sensitized to and paying attention to them, you’ll soon find a few major stereotypes at play.

In the last 20 years, only a few Francophone films have dealt with race with forthright courage: Café au Lait, (1993) and La Haine (1995) (which translates literally as “hate”), both by Mathieu Kassovitz, who was called France’s own Spike Lee, when Lee was at the zenith of his polemical and popular works.  Café au Lait is the story about a mixed-race 20-something woman who has a choice between two lovers: a white Jew or a black Muslim.  La Haine looks at race from a neighborhood and economic point of view

In 2010 Le Nom des Gens came from France.  It’s at least as exuberant as, but I believe more memorable and smarter than, Intouchables.  And it contends with race, politics and religion in a deft, subtle, hilarious and sophisticated way.  Unfortunately Intouchables doesn’t.

The actor, Omar Sy, a star in France, spoke to this briefly but pithily on Shadow and Act.

Omar Sy: I was a bit surprised to hear the criticism, because it’s a film that I believe in, I defend the film, and I would never be involved in a film that has racist overtones. It’s a French movie and it has to be read in the context of a French society. If you look at it with a different set of criteria you can come up with a different meaning.

 

In France, the banlieues (suburbs) is a completely different environment than what you have in the United States. It’s not as racially segmented. The people from the banlieues, be they from Hispanic origin or black origin, they’re in the same socio-economic slice. In America, [people of color] may have ancestry tied to slavery or immigration.

Daphnee Denis discussed this ably in her posting for Slate.

After I saw the film at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, I faced a fork in the road of discussing it.  I could choose between leveling a critique or criticism.  When people asked for my opinion or review of it, their interest in a conversation would rapidly dissipate if I raised my concerns about the stereotypes, and the bigotry that their presence implied.

(left to right) Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy

What’ll this bode for how well or how much better either country digs the other’s point of view on race, or recognizing it?  At the least (and maybe least useful) it reminds us, yet once more, of how much farther each country has to venture in order to shed our connection of everything in life to color and features (or the denial of that as a social reality).

Talking about is a part of the power of a provocative movie.  Isn’t it the movies that leave us with blank minds and nothing to say that are the problems?

So, this impass at a movie theater, and between countries and cultures, presents an opportunity to discuss how race, too often discussed in divisive and agonizing ways in the US and “never” officially in France, is understood in a hit film.  I regret that as seldom as these opportunities come, it is just as rare when any of us handles them as smoothly as most of us say we want.

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