These are heady times for the French-Jewish filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Harvey Weinstein snatched up the rights to their French-language odd couple dramedy, “The Intouchables,” following The Weinstein Company’s penchant for purchasing Gallic fare such as the Oscar-winning “The Artist” and “Sarah’s Key.”
“The Intouchables,” which spotlights the unlikely friendship between Philippe, a quadriplegic French aristocrat (François Cluzet) and Driss, his Muslim Senegalese caretaker (Omar Sy), proved to be the second-highest grossing film ever in France and Germany, where it’s done better box office than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – not to mention grossing $330 million worldwide, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Plus the film scored a best actor Cesar for Sy, even beating out “The Artist’s “Jean Dujardin. And now Hollywood has come calling, with “Bridesmaids’” Paul Feig signed on to direct an English-language version that may star Oscar-winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”).
“This movie is…a funny, extremely entertaining illustration of how simple human connection transcends socioeconomic, religious and racial divides,” Weinstein said in a press release for the film, which opens in Los Angeles on May 25.
During a recent interview at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, the affable filmmakers sat side by side at a vast conference table. They said they didn’t intend their culture clash comedy to comment on the state of France’s attitudes towards Muslims (or even indirectly, the newer type of anti-Semitism generated by the kind of Islamic terrorists who committed the recent murders in Toulouse). In fact, the perception many Americans have of their country as xenophobic is no longer correct, they said. “I think that is the wrong image of France,” Toledano, 40, insisted, citing as an example the number of top French celebrities who come from diverse backgrounds, such as Sy.
For the filmmakers, “The Intouchables” is rather intended to further a new kind of cinematic hero.
“Our movie isn’t the typical Hollywood story of the healthy, big guy,” Toledano said. “The hero of today is the hero we wanted to hide yesterday. For example, people from the ghetto, people with paralysis – and we wanted to make them the heroes because we thought theirs is the most heroic story – more heroic than Superman or Jean Paul Belmondo.
“What Philippe and Driss have is a human relationship,” Toledano added. “They have every possibility not to get along and yet they do get along. It just goes beyond preconceptions because the odds for them to meet were almost none and yet they met and connected.”
Toledano and Nakache describe themselves as “two Sephardic boys;” both hail from families that fled North Africa – Toledano’s left Morocco when the Six Days War broke out in 1967, while Nakache’s left Algeria during a bloody civil war in 1962.
Growing up Jewish in Paris, Toledano said, ”We felt like the ‘others,’ but not more than blacks or Arabs. [The sentiment] was not especially against Jews, but when you grew up in France, people always asked you about where you were from if you’re not with a French name or a French face.”
Toledano was raised in a religiously observant family, speaks Hebrew, spent a year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has an uncle, Joseph Toledano, who is an Israel-based scholar of Sephardic Jewry. Nakache said he was raised in a traditional home, and met Toledano when as teenagers both were leaders of a French Jewish youth group.
It was in their early 20s that they began making short films together: “We made a deal,” Toledano said. “We said alone, it will be difficult, so let’s do it together.” After screening an early movie that turned out to be “a disaster,” Toledano and Nakache said, they made a successful short, “Small Shoes,” (1999) based on their own experience of playing Santa Claus for Christian families, a Yuletide tradition among Jewish and Muslim youths.
“Those Happy Days” (2006) was based on the Jewish summer camp Toledano and Nakache attended, though they chose to make the fictional setting non-denominational, with black and Arab as well as other campers. In 2004, their critically acclaimed “I Prefer That We Remain Friends” (2004) starred Gerard Depardieu as a Jewish hypochondriac who, together with a younger male friend, go on a quest looking for love. “Our stories are [often] very autobiographical,” Toledano explained. “When we did this film we weren’t married; we were lonely single guys, so we told the story about two lonely guys of two different ages who are looking for wives together. But by the end of the movie, they discover that their own friendship is better. That was our story at the time because then we didn’t find the girl, but now we are both married.”
“The Intouchables” came about after Toledano and Nakache saw a documentary, “In Life and Death,” about the real-life aristocrat, Philippe Pozzo de Borgo, and his caretaker, Abdel, who is actually from Algeria rather than Senegal. “It was a beautiful metaphor of life and how we need each other,” Toledano said of why he and Nakache were drawn to the story. “These are both extremely lonely people who have nothing in common – not culture, money, color or religion. On paper they have no chance to have an accord. But it’s a true story and when we spoke to them, they said, ‘We saved each others’ lives. If I hadn’t met the other one, now I’d be dead.’”
In the film, Philippe’s aide is renamed Driss; the filmmakers said they merged actor Omar Sy’s own story with Abdel’s to create the ex-con character who, we learn, was born in Senegal, sent to live with relatives in the France, raised in the ghetto projects on the outskirts of Paris, and has had run-ins with the law.
The movie went on to become a critical and box office hit in France – and also made headlines when far right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen said he saw “The Intouchables “as a representation of the progression that France is making – which he is vitally against,” according to a Weinstein Company press release.
“France is like this handicapped person stuck in this wheelchair, and we are going to have to wait for the help of these suburban youngsters and the immigration in general,” Le Pen said in a speech. “I don’t subscribe to this point of view….It would be a disaster if France would find itself in the same situation as this poor handicapped person.”
In response, Harvey Weinstein said: “It’s not a surprise to hear such an intolerant statement from the man who founded and was president of the extreme-right, xenophobic, racist National Front party. Le Pen made a repulsive statement, representing a bigoted worldview. And right now, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, is running for president of France as the leader of the National Front party—and she is fourth in the polls with almost 16% of the population intending to vote for her. That’s frightening to me, and I think it’s important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas. That’s why I’m proud to bring ‘The Intouchables’ to American audiences. This movie is based on a true story, and it’s a funny, extremely entertaining illustration of how simple human connection trounces socioeconomic, religious and racial divides. “
“The Intouchables opens on May 25 in Los Angeles.