Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cross-Cultural Racial Attitudes

France's runaway hit movie of the season is Intouchables, which features a wealthy white quadriplegic (François Cluzet) who hires a black man from the projects (Omar Sy) as his helper. Arun Kapil notes that the film, which has attracted huge audiences in France, has also been roundly panned by American reviewers:

Maybe I’ve lived in France too long, or have just come to view black-white racial dynamics differently from the way they are outre-Atlantique. Variety’s critic simply hated the pic. Money quote

Though never known for their subtlety, French co-helmers/scripters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have never delivered a film as offensive as “Untouchable,” which flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens. The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights, will need to commission a massive rewrite to make palatable this cringe-worthy comedy about a rich, white quadriplegic hiring a black man from the projects to be his caretaker, exposing him to “culture” while learning to loosen up. Sadly, this claptrap will do boffo Euro biz.
Ouch! The critic at Hollywood Reporter was less severe, though only somewhat, praising the performances of Sy and Cluzet but calling the film “a shamelessly manipulative French crowd pleaser.” Aïe! Looks like we have a transatlantic cultural clash here. The Variety review mentions the 1980s Eddie Murphy-Dan Ackroyd hit ‘Trading Places’. Now that was a funny movie!
It's never easy to grasp the subtleties of intrasocial ethnic relations across national boundaries. I haven't seen Intouchables myself, but I have been watching the French TV sitcom Fortunes, which follows the hijinks of a group of young people of various ethnic backgrounds: Muslims, Gypsies, Portuguese, Chinese. A young Maghrebi real-estate broker married to a Portuguese woman dreams of making the big score and getting fabulously rich, but his schemes are frequently undone by his clever Chinese competitor, etc. You get the picture. Everyone gets along easily (except for the Chinese character) in a world in which Français de souche figure mainly as backdrops or comic relief. It's interesting to see how writers turn live social tensions into comic fodder, comedy being one of the (important) byways of ethnic integration.