Almost everyone in the HLM housing estates north of Bondy knows “Intouchables”, the French blockbuster film about a poor black man from their neighborhood who is hired to take care of a rich white quadriplegic.
But as darkness settled over the labyrinth of high-rise projects in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, few of the young men who huddled under canopies in an austere central plaza said they had actually seen the film.
Although most knew a cousin or friend who had played a small part in the scenes shot in Bondy, “we are too poor to go to the movies,” said Ibrahim, 28, who runs the kebab restaurant in the square. and refused to give his last name to a stranger.
Nationwide, however, the film broke box office records. Overwhelmed by a sluggish economy and the gloomy prospect of austerity measures, “Intouchables” offers a joyful break with reality with its modern fairy tale.
The film is hailed as a “cultural phenomenon”. President Nicolas Sarkozy liked it so much that he would have liked to invite the actors to dinner at the Elysee Palace.
Yet even though the Cinderella story has audiences applauding, a few critics have chastised her unrealistic view of the struggles of France’s poor, as well as her “easy stereotypes” of minorities, exemplified by the funny hero, Driss. Driss is of Senegalese origin, and with his charming wit – but also his total ignorance of French gastronomy, art and music – he animates the suffocating world of his wealthy counterpart, Philippe.
“This film dates from the 1930s, when we thought that the black man had no culture and spent his time laughing at everything”, declared the philosopher Jean-Jacques Delfour after the film’s review for the French daily Liberation .
But French critics were harmless flares to the bombshell thrown by Variety critic Jay Weissberg, who wrote that the film “tells about the kind of Uncle Tom’s racism that is hoped to have left the house for good. American screens ”.
“Driss is only treated as a high performance monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching stuck whites how to get off” … it’s painful to see, “he wrote.
In the subsequent onslaught of defensive and baffled reactions from the French on the web and in the mainstream media, Weissberg’s opinion quickly turned into an “American” response to the film, another example of the controversial cultural sparks that can periodically fly between France and the United States. .
“How the Americans could they consider a film that we, French, like so much, like racist? asked a journalist from French radio RTL.
“Did we watch the same movie? Asked a commentator on the French film site AlloCine, 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 which, tinged with paranoia, remains quite rare in France among journalistic critics”, declared the French philosopher and historian Pierre-André Taguieff, whose works for Sciences Po’s center for political studies in Paris focused on racism and xenophobia. “This anti-racist extremism is, in my eyes, an American specialty.”
Taguieff, in an email exchange, said he did not find the film racist, but recognized “social and ethnic clichés” in it, which he said “flattered” a sweet French perception of itself as a place where “rich and poor, black and white can get along.”
As they left the screening of the film in Paris on a recent Sunday, two women of mixed French and African descent agreed that the film made fun of ethnic clichés but avoided racism, as it glorified an individual, who they said, stole the show.
“Of course, I see there is the dark side of the character, but he’s the real hero,” said Eliane Cangou, 50. “He’s the one who showcases the black man the most, and it’s still rare to see him here in the movies. I felt Driss had a higher role than the white man.
As for the scenes of Driss transforming a room full of classical music lovers into a dance party, “here in France”, declared Cangou’s friend, Nicole Fabroni, “we will always laugh about it”.
“The film has to be released in America so that people there can make up their own minds,” she said of the film, which is due to be released in the United States next summer.
Among the inhabitants of the north of Bondy interviewed, none of those who had seen the film felt the least bit offended.
“I loved the movie and I could relate to it,” said Kader Doumbia, 21, who was hanging out near the kebab restaurant with friends, speaking in the cold. “We are like that: people who like to joke and say how we feel. “
Slowly, his initially reluctant friends agreed to tell a reporter about the film and praised 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 differently. This is how we are, ”said Booba Kay, 23, who said he also worked with people with physical and mental disabilities. “I could totally see myself in him.”
As for the criticism of the shots from the film, “you have to remember,” said Doumbia, “these are still just movies”.
Lauter is a special envoy.