The Intouchables

A scene from The Intouchables (Alliance Films)

French director Eric Toledano was understandably suspicious when he was told that Nicolas Sarkozy was on the phone. Toledano and his Intouchables co-director Olivier Nakache had enjoyed great success in their home country last fall with the story of a rich white quadriplegic and his poor black caregiver but weren't expecting to be invited to lunch by the former French president, who, it turns out, was a fan of their feel-good hit.

"If it's a joke, it's a good joke!" Toledano recalls during a recent interview in Toronto. "It was a great experience for us. I think my kids will tell to their kids how their grandfather met the president."

The Intouchables stars French art house staple François Cluzet (Tell No One) as Philippe, a rich Parisian left paralyzed after a paragliding accident. Against all odds he decides to hire Driss (Omar Sy: Micmacs), a poor Senegalese immigrant, to be his caregiver. The two develop a friendship despite obvious differences in class, race, and wealth.

The film is based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou. Pozzo Di Borgo was the acting director of Pommery champagne manufacturers when a paragliding accident left him paralyzed; Sellou was his caregiver. They continue to be friends, and Sellou, who now works for a chicken manufacturer in Algeria, visits his former employer every year in his home in Essaouira, Morocco. I ask Toledano, who consulted with Pozzo di Borgo during the scriptwriting phase, about the difficulty of balancing truth and fiction.

"When you do fiction you have the rights to do everything," he says. "So you can stand on the reality and to do what you want with the fiction. So we decided to do exactly like this. We take the reality, and because we have a script to do and a frontier to respect which is very, very tight between humour and emotion. And it's always on the verge. You can go and be cheesy now, you can go and be heavy now, you can go and be naive now. So we need to ask many, many times the question, and the humour was the best way to tell the story and to be smart and clever about that."

The Intouchables premiered at the 2011 San Sebastian International Film Festival, and has gone on to become the second most successful French film in France (behind 2008's Welcome to the Sticks). It topped box office charts in the country for ten straight weeks, selling two million tickets in its first week (over 19 million during its run), and has earned nearly $248 million worldwide to date. Why does Toledano think people have responded so strongly to the film?

"This is just simple story about realistic people; real people with real situation," he says. "And I think there is so much hope. It's optimistic. It's a feel-good movie, but we didn't forget about the cinema aspect."

Given the film's international success, an English-language version is not surprisingly being developed. Movie vet Harvey Weinstein has bought the rights to an American remake, and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig is already set to helm. Colin Firth (The King's Speech) is rumoured to be in the running for the Cluzet role.

Toledano is not necessarily opposed to the remake idea. He knows his and Nakache's film is only getting a small release in North America ("I'm not living on another planet") and that Americans "are not reading subtitles." Still, he thinks it's a missed opportunity for American audiences if they pass up his film simply because it's in another language.

"In France we love every kind of movie - American, European, Korean - because we read the subtitles. You can open your eyes on the world."

One particularly unwelcome aspect of American attention on The Intouchables is accusations of racism from some American film critics. Variety writer Jay Weissberg, for instance, has accused the filmmakers of trafficking in what he called in his review "Uncle Tom racism," with Sy's character in particular "embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race." It's an observation which "insulted" and "disappointed" Toledano.

"You have to give a question to your mind before to say bulls**t like this. This is a movie that is fighting against racism and to give hope and a new look about each other."

Toledano suggests that the negative American reaction - which certainly is not representative of all or even the majority of American reviews - may speak more about the critics themselves and their own assumptions about race than it does about the film.

"Do you think really that 9 million people from France which saw the movie and now more than 35 million people in Europe have not seen the problem, but only American have seen?" he asks, somewhat indignantly. "To get an article like this and a review like this, perhaps [you are] a little duped about yourself."

Ultimately, Toledano says, The Intouchables has got people talking about issues of poverty (Driss lives in a banlieue, one of several ghettoes on the outskirts of Paris) and disability; something he hopes sparks positive change in France and elsewhere.

"We are in the nervous point of the art when the art can change life. It's wonderful. Even if there is only this fact in my life, when I die I will say my life has a sense."