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  • Interpreting Intouchables:Competing Transnationalisms in Contemporary French Cinema
  • Charlie Michael (bio)

The main publicity poster for Olivier Nakache’s and Eric Toledano’s recent film Intouchables (The Intouchables [2011]) features two men side-by-side, grinning ear-to-ear. The image is oddly difficult to interpret. For French cinema initiates, the contrast should be striking. Seated to the left is François Cluzet, long one of the France’s more versatile leading actors; huddled over him on the right is Omar Sy, a French-born comedian of Senegalese and Mauritanian descent who, prior to playing this role, was largely unknown to the French public. Those unfamiliar with the actors will note, at the very least, their different attire; Cluzet’s patterned ascot and Sy’s green hooded sweatshirt signal clear class distinctions to go with their contrasting skin tones. Yet although this type of odd couple is common in French farce (as in Hollywood buddy comedies), the film’s strangely inscrutable title gives pause. Lacking an article in French, intouchables becomes a floating plural adjective and invites speculation. Just who or what is “untouchable” here anyway, and in what sense? Is this perhaps an oblique reference to the lowest rung of the Indian caste system? If so, to what end? In the absence of any other straightforward indicators, the viewer can hardly be blamed for grasping for possible meanings

What is clear by now is that this puzzling title is already an historic one for French cinema. A funny and often moving tale of friendship between ultra-rich quadriplegic art dealer Philippe (Cluzet) and his quick-witted medical aide Driss (Sy), who hails from the Parisian banlieue, Intouchables is now widely recognized as the French “cultural phenomenon” of 2011.1 Drawing a record nineteen million viewers to French theaters, it surpassed La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now – We’re Being Shot At [Gérard Oury, 1966]) and challenged Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks [Dany Boon, 2008]) on the list of all-time box office hits. The film garnered nine César nominations (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and won Best Actor for Sy—a break-out role now hailed as the star vehicle for perhaps the country’s first major black screen actor. Many commentators saw the film’s feel-good message about overcoming racial and class [End Page 123] differences as a panacea for the ills spawned by the Eurozone debt crisis. Yet just as hopes for Intouchables’s export potential grew, the first major American trade review from Variety accused the film of engaging in a retrograde form of “Uncle Tom-ism” in its the depiction of Sy’s character (Weissberg). If this commentary did little to slow the film’s momentum in France or abroad, it did stir widespread discussion about the status of visible minorities and physical disabilities in French cinema and debate concerning what can and cannot be represented in French popular culture.2

Drawing inspiration from recent sociological work on globalization,3 I will suggest here that disagreements about the aesthetic and political implications of a film like Intouchables derive from the friction sparked by several distinct “framing narratives” about the French film industry that have been vying for dominance for some time. My analysis of how these discourses collide in discussions of a single film will complicate Martine Danan’s view of the dialectical tension between “national” and “post-national” modes of French filmmaking that have emerged in the era of late media capitalism (Danan). With respect to Intouchables, I will demonstrate how individual French films, and the fervent debates about them, have become sites of struggle among competing discourses on transnationalism and on the influence it is now exerting on contemporary French film culture.

(Re) Framing “Post-National” French Cinema

The opening sequence of Intouchables extends the poster’s game of coy referentiality. We hear somber piano lilts and watch two occupants of a black Maserati conversing in tightly framed, shallow focus. Bathed in the colorful shapes of night-through-windshield cinematography, Sy’s smile and shaved scalp contrast with the ashen countenance of a bearded Cluzet as he chides his younger companion. As the car...


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