I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be brought up by parents who had a predilection for Art House films, and thus spent many weekend nights reading yellow subtitles, between moments where I was instructed to 'cover my eyes' when scenes became a little too risque.
Despite this experience, or perhaps because of it, I still indulge in foreign cinema from time to time. The more popular and award winning films from the Cannes or Sundance festival tend to be dominated by social justice and multicultural stories but there are often a few good ones lower down the list.
Years ago, I was told I just must see The Intouchables, a film about a wheelchair-bound Frenchman and his black assistant. That alone was enough to know that it was going to be some kind of over-the-top class/race/generational coming together for bourgeois francophiles and liberals to gush over. To my surprise it was far worse than I could have imagined.
The story starts out with the middle-aged, paraplegic French aristocrat Phillipe, played by François Cluzet. Forced to attend job interviews to qualify for the dole, African migrant Driss, played by Omar Sy, makes it clear he is not interested in the job and asks for his form to be signed as proof of his attendance. As a way of smiting his attempts to evade responsibility, he is given the job and expected to start immediately.
The film follows the path of other rich-meets-poor-stories of people who would never normally come into contact with eachother who both learn from one another and break down the social barriers that would normally divide them through a shared personal struggle. The world of Phillipe is a parody of the stuffiness of the old French upper class and his animosity towards it reflective of both its decline and obselescence. Predictably, Driss' anger at French society is a result of how poorly it has treated him, after stints in prison and mistreatment at the hands of African gangs in the banlieu. Sound familiar?
Much like other black-meets-white stories, the decadence and cynicism of the European is invigorated by the passion and energy of the black form. In one particulary potent scene, Phillipe's string quartet is interrupted by Driss' insistence that they play some negro hip-hop, after which he proceeds to dance lewdly and shock the sensibilities of the uptight staff and guests who slowly warm to the his jungle charm and make fools of themselves dancing, to Phillipe's amusement.
The rawness and honesty of Driss' performance and his naked contempt for his hosts' culture and stature makes him the perfect pet for the revolutionary managerial elite. The enduring myth of a cultivated and aristocratic ruling class is propped up by these culturally dominant bourgeois bohemians who have been properly in charge of France for over a century. By equating the remants of the ancien regime with Frenchness itself in a rich-meets-poor heartwarmer, France is both redeemed and improved by the Negro. Driss is redeemed in so far as he regains his faith in France's willingness to share with him its wealth and approval, giving him the belief he was previously denied that he requires to more successfully 'hustle' in his banlieu and therefore uplift his maligned community.
Driss' vulgarity and sexual advances towards white female household staff are portrayed as boyishly innocent and cheeky. Redhead Audrey Fleurot, who plays the object of his desire is an impossibly attractive lesbian who confidently mocks his playful and futile attempts at seduction. The politically correct fantasy of the attractive and well-adjusted lesbian appears to let the producers off the hook for Driss' aggressive African sexual harassment in case his blackness was insufficent on its own.
In another nod to the loss of France to its former colonial subjects, Driss takes Phillipe out in his wheelchair for a late night walk along the Seine, which Phillipe admits to have not done for many years. White Parisians are no longer safe in Paris streets at night, and it takes one of its new masters to reveal to the old master their beauty and charm. The confidence of the African in roaming about in the early hours of the morning without fear for safety nor concern about keeping ordinary hours is again shown to reveal the timidity and fortress mentality of the white bourgeoise who have surrendered the public square.
The final scenes prepare the viewer for the departing gift of Driss to his master. Too shy and afraid to meet with his penpal love interest, Driss arranges for him a surprise date, leaving Phillipe in his chair where he cannot escape. By forcing Phillipe to confront his fear and let go of the past, Driss comes to represent the the push of honesty that is needed to repair the brokenness of his heart.
Having a new faith in his own goodness and his mission to speak truth to France and give her the chance of renewal, Driss sets out to get his life together. As the ghetto-meets-manoir genre continues to grow in size and sophistication, I can recommend The Intouchables to cultivated and discerning audiences looking for rays of hope in these times of global conflict and despair.