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Karin Badt

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French Film Untouchable Wins Grand Prize at Tokyo International Film Festival

Posted: 11/04/11 04:25 PM ET

Interestingly, two of the European films featured in this year's competition of the Tokyo International Film Festival had the same message: value immigrants and people of color, as you never know what they can offer. The French offering -- Eric Toledano's Untouchable -- the film which won the festival Grand Prize, is a comic-sweet story of a rich aristocrat (François Cluzet) now a paraplegic widower, who hires a Senagalese immigrant from the projects and learns how to laugh and live again. The opening scene expresses the punchline of the entire film (indeed the film is a one-liner): Driss the immigrant (Omar Sy) zooms a hundred miles an hour through traffic, pursued by the police, in a wild chase that makes the formerly stodgy aristocrat beam and chuckle.

Untouchable is an entertaining film, fresh in spirit, boasting many memorable moments, such as the one in which Driss tries to get a cute French girl to take a bath with him. Nevertheless, the film borders on the offensive, despite efforts to be politically correct.

Steeped in stereotypes (the French aristocracy with its constipated Vivaldi concerts; the Black dude with his cool Earth, Wind and Fire music and sassy antics) the film seems to have sprung out of a pre-sixties era. The Black man is the Aristocrat's clown: he who can make him laugh and remember the "beat." We even have the Black man doing a wild break-dance dance for the Aristocrat and his friends in the drawing room. At one point, Driss -- ignorant, of course, of all high arts -- sees some abstract paintings being sold at an exorbitant price, and splashes some paint on canvas himself, which is sold then to a wealthy aristocrat for thirty thousand euros. A mockery of both high class art and immigrant pretensions to the arts (see, in contrast, the efforts of the African-American group of "Highway Men," Florida artists who created naïve art out of genuine inspiration -- and sold fabulously, as well).

This film can, of course, also be seen as part of a solid genre of films which teach upper class folks that the lower class has some merit. See the 1950s film Sabrina where Audrey Hepburn, a poor chauffeur's daughter, brings life and love to a bored, wealthy playboy.

But here, in the French version, there is no real "intermarriage" to follow. The Black dude serves to jump-start the rich guy's life. He goes off to marry for a second time, and have children ("even a parapalegic, if he has money, can get a girl," Driss tells him,) while the White dude teaches the Black dude to be civilized -- so he settles down and marries, as well.

"What's interesting," noted a French colleague who found the film as annoyingly conservative as I. "Is that this is based on a true story, yet in the real story, the "Black" is North African, whereas here he is Black. That is probably because we French have a lot of problems with Arabs, while the Black is always seen as a loveable clown, unthreatening."

What would be really exciting is if one day someone will make a film in which a White aristocrat has to prove to a Black man (and the audience) that he has something to offer.

The other film with an "immigrants are valuable" message -- which actually did offer a new twist -- was Italian director Francesco Patierno's Things From Another World. Here, the director makes the message literal: what would happen if suddenly all the immigrants in an Italian city were to disappear, offended by the racist comments of a TV talk show host? The film, comic and informative at the same time, shows the city in a panic with the loss of immigrant labor. No more caretakers for the elderly, a reduction in factory workers, ibid for prostitutes, and -- a startling fact -- a hard-hit Catholic church, as over fifty percent of priests in Italy today are immigrants.

Patierno met me at the top floor of the Roppongi Hills complex in downtown Tokyo and explained that the obnoxious talk show host (played by the famous actor Diego Abatantuono) is based on a real racist talk-show host, Pier Gianni Prosperini, whose blathering racist comments can be heard on YouTube, for anyone interested. The reason he made this film, the director told me, is that immigration and racism is the number one issue in Italy today.

It is apparently a major issue in France as well, even by those who claim enlightenment.

On a lighter note, one of the best films I saw at this year's festival was the only Japanese offering in the competition: Shuichi Okita's The Woodsman and the Rain, which won the Jury Prize. A truly original film about a lumberjack who accidentally becomes part of a film shoot in the forest, it has one of those zany plots where nothing much happens, which has unexpectedly universal appeal. The audience -- comprised of journalists from a dozen different countries -- unanimously burst out in chuckles when the woodsman unexpectedly is co-opted into being a "zombie" (with eyes painted white) and must learn how to walk with arms outstretched. The scene with the insecure director running away from his own set, crossing the train tracks in a desperate goofy rush, is hilarious. If The Woodsman and the Rain comes out in the U.S., it is not to be missed.