With eyes of the movie world turned toward the Cannes Film Festival, a pair of notable French flicks is opening in limited release stateside, "The Intouchables" and "Polisse."
"The Intouchables" was a juggernaut in Europe, raking in over $281 million at the box office to become the highest-grossing non-English language movie. And it's easy to see why. The slickly produced crowd pleaser appears more akin to Hollywood than, say, Francois Truffaut.
The movie centers on Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a wealthy aristocrat who was rendered a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. While interviewing a string of highly qualified but colorless caregivers, Philippe meets Driss (Omar Sy), a tall, lanky ex-con who showed up for an interview only to qualify for unemployment. When he learns of Philippe's condition, he quips, "That's a bummer." The millionaire hires Driss, of course, but not for his care-taking skills — he is, at least in the beginning, completely inept. Instead, he hires the Senegalese immigrant because relates to him not as a patient but as a man.
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The story that unfolds will seem familiar to anyone who's watched "Driving Miss Daisy": An uptight rich white dude finds his soul thanks to his poor, black servant. Much of the film's humor is derived from the blunt, wise-cracking Driss navigating in Philippe's upper-crust world, from marveling at his new posh living quarters to ridiculing high-brow culture including opera and abstract art. Driss, in turn, introduces Philippe to weed and funky music. It's the sort of scenario that's straight out of "Trading Places." The problem is that both of those movies came out over 20 years ago. Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Tolendo's movie might feel dated to some Americans and quite possibly offensive to others. That being said, if you can get past some cringe-worthy scenes -- Driss shaking his thang to "Boogie Wonderland" to a room full of shocked Parisian matrons, for instance -- the film is remarkably good at pushing some emotional buttons. You will be uplifted.
The Weinstein Company, which is distributing this movie, has optioned the remake rights. While it's fun to guess at the casting -- Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Hart? Colin Firth and Will Smith? -- a more telling exercise will be seeing what elements of the French original remain in the Hollywood remake and what gets left out.
The other French movie opening this month is "Polisse," which is about as far from "The Intouchables" as you can get. It raises more questions than it answers, it follows no Tinseltown story template, and it's definitely not a feel-good movie. Instead, "Polisse," directed by actress-turned-directorMaiwenn, is a gritty look at a child-protection police unit in a working-class suburb of Paris. It's easy to see the U.S. version of this movie centering on a single dramatized case a la "Law & Order: SUV." But Maiwenn focuses on the day-to-day struggles and tedium of the job. As the police officers gingerly interview abused children and interrogate pedophiles, we see them also trying to decompress from their demanding job in the after-hours, which -- this being France -- entails numerous dinner parties and copious amounts of wine.
Maiwenn reportedly shadowed a real Child Protection Unit and used what she saw and heard as material for the script. While the narrative has a certain bagginess that you would never see in a Hollywood flick, it does have authenticity. In one scene, a West African immigrant declares with a sad dignity that after living on the streets for months, she can no longer care for her young son. The scene that follows is both heartbreaking and depressingly credible.
Some wags have compared this film to the landmark TV series "The Wire," but a more apt comparison is Laurent Cantet's 2008 Palme d'Or winner "The Class." Both films are portraits of French institutions creaking under the demands of an increasingly diverse population. While "The Intouchables" presents the changing face of France as a sleek fairy tale, "Polisse" feels messy, vital, and real.
See the trailer for 'The Intouchables':