If the same proportion of people in the United States saw The Avengers as the percentage of French citizens who have seen The Intouchables, the Marvel super-hero-fest would have grossed well over $1 billion domestically (instead of slightly less than half of that).
As it is, The Intouchables, opening in limited release in the United States today, has sold nearly 20 million tickets in France -- in a country with a population of 65 million. When you factor out children, the percentage of people who have seen it is even higher.
It's a figure that still boggles the minds of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the writer-directors of The Intouchables. They've had hits in France before -- but none that sold more than two million tickets. And none of their films has been a hit outside of their own country.
"We're more surprised everyday by news of its international release," Toledano, 40, says, sitting in a conference room in the Tribeca offices of The Weinstein Company, which is releasing The Intouchables in the U.S. "The French response to the film was completely disproportionate to the size of the country -- but I was even more surprised by the response in countries like Korea, Germany, Poland and Israel. Korea -- that's a country we don't know at all. Over the past 10 or 15 years, French films have had no success in Korea. We're surprised that this film has touched people so far away from France."
The film is the second-highest-grossing French film in France's history, behind the 2008 comedy, Welcome to the Sticks. Based on a true story, The Intouchables tells the story of Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a quadriplegic who hires a Senegalese immigrant named Driss (Omar Sy) as his caregiver. Driss, just out of prison for robbery, seems an unlikely choice -- but he and Philippe develop a bond that goes beyond employer-employee, a friendship between two people who otherwise are marginalized by society.
The real-life characters on whom the story is based were the scion of a wealthy champagne-making family and Abdel, an Algerian immigrant. The fact that the directors changed the character from a North African to a sub-Saharan had to do with the relationship the directors had with Sy, a popular French comic actor with whom they had worked previously.
To French audiences, they say, an immigrant is an immigrant, regardless of color: "In real life, Omar has the same past as Abdel, in terms of his experience coming to France from Africa," Nakache says. "For us, it was about the story -- and we thought about Omar for that character."
Adds Toledano, "In France, they are both in the same social group, which is referred to as 'the young of the projects.' And that social group is 90 percent Arab and black. To the French, there is no consequence to changing his country, if you have a good actor. In France and Europe, no one cares about that."
But, even before its release, politically correct American critics were applying their own standard to the film, with a Variety critic accusing the film of turning Driss into an "Uncle Tom" character. The directors reject that notion, saying that Americans bring a different perspective to issues of race -- or, in this case, see an issue of race where there is none.
"Black characters have a special meaning in the U.S.," Toledano says. "Race is an ongoing question in America. The attack from a journalist about stereotypical images really hurt us. If anything, it's a movie that shows no hierarchy in the relationship. Their relationship is very pragmatic; they each give the other something."
"For us, this is like a fairy tale about contemporary society," Nakache adds. Continues Toledano, "It was important for us to have a real story in this period of economic crisis. People want to laugh about something they can connect with."
The film was bought for American distribution by Harvey Weinstein, based on a trailer, before the film had even been released in France. Now Weinstein's company has plans to make an English-language version, with Colin Firth mentioned to play Philippe.
"The idea of remaking it is probably a problem of subtitles for American audiences," Toledano says. "I think that, if people will come see the original, that would be enough. And they do have an opportunity to see ours first. We trust Harvey; he's our partner. We think they'll do something close to the original. But we're curious how the American audience will respond to the original. It's a big honor to have it released in America -- that means a lot."
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