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When Are Films Political? French Social Issue Comedies

When Are Films Political? French Social Issue Comedies

Janus Films, the theatrical sister of the Criterion Collection, released Le Havre in October in the U.S.  Acme PR is holding special screenings now in L.A. as it is Finland’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.  OK, maybe it’s not French because it is by the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki, but its tone is quintessentially and classically French.

As of late November it has grossed $5 million abroad and has sold in every territory.  The film is breaking so big in France that two art house theaters, the Balzac and the Lincoln, closed their doors for a week in protest that the major theater chains, by booking such an art house film, are encroaching on their formerly exclusive territory. This echo of our own art house theaters is the subject of an earlier blog.

I am highlighting this film because when I saw it in Cannes this year, I was not the only one thrilled with it and its message of citizen solidarity to protect immigrants. 

The French are turning out socially conscious comedies these days, including The Hedgehog released earlier this year by NeoClassics which grossed almost $1 million here in U.S.

 and Welcome to the Sticks (whose remake rights have been optioned by Will Smith) which is one of the four top grossing films of all time in France and grossed $245,144,417 worldwide, not counting U.S. according to Box Office Mojo.. 

The latest French social comedy, Untouchables, has caused quite a cross-cultural stir between France and the U.S.  As Devorah Lautner of L.A. Times puts it, the “hit French movie ‘Intouchables’ has some crying ‘racism’.  But the reaction from some U.S. critics has many French scratching their heads.”  And it is the France’s 5th top grossing film of ALL TIME which has helped put French box office at its highest peak in 45 years!  (Compare that to our 16-year-low.)  The story is of a “poor black man” living in Paris’ ghetto, the suburb of Bondy, who is hired to take care of a rich, white quadriplegic.   Variety reviewer, Jay Weissberg, thinks it’s racist because if we did such a broadside comedy here, it would surely cause our own African-American viewing audience to raise a red flag.  To quote him, the film “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens…Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get ‘down’ by replacing Vivaldi with ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and showing off his moves on the dance floor. It’s painful to see Omar Sy, a joyfully charismatic performer, in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race.”

 However, the French audiences love it and even the African-French population living in the suburb of Bondy are all in  favor of it.  I am no referee, nor have I seen the film, but I am now most eager to see it and weigh in.  The Weinstein Company, who has also optioned its remake rights, plans to release it this summer.  Shadow and Act puts it in the same bucket at The Help and The Blindside.

These “feel good” movies lighten up the hard politics we are all so troubled to be witnessing in today’s world.  To return to Le Havre, it is a warmhearted portrait of the French harbor city that gives the film its name.  Fate throws a young African refugee Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) into the path of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a well-spoken bohemian who works as a shoeshiner. With innate optimism and the unwavering support of his community, Marcel stands up to officials doggedly pursuing the boy for deportation. A political fairy tale that exists somewhere between the reality of contemporary France and the classic cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville and Marcel Carné, Le Havre is a charming, deadpan delight.

I suppose one could also call Le Havre sickly sentimental pap in light of the reality we witness both here and abroad vis a vis their immigration policies, but I prefer to love it for its purity.

Vox populi rules!

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this blog talked more about Intouchables than about Le Havre. French dramas or comedies sense of humor or satire not that easily to be translated by cross cultures. For example Intouchables is just touchable, none comparision with looks like similar cross races subject Hollywood films


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When using terms such as offensive to describe a movie like “Untouchable” next to “Uncle Tom racism” in American cinema, you would think we’re talking about a film made in the United States. However, blatantly citing it as if it is such, Jay Weissberg is not discrediting the film – one that if seen within the context of its success in its native country as one of the best grossing films in the last 45 years – is instead single handedly pointing out what might be one of the biggest problems in continuing racism in the United States. A so-called “anti-racist extremism” as cited by the French the Pierre-Andre Taguieff and does just as much as the “racist” by focusing our attentions so closely to the idea of it. Not saying that one should forget, nor be insensitive to the past – but by recognizing the intent and the context, I think it is easy to tell that the film Untouchables was in no way meant to be as Weissberg describes.
The biggest clue of all being that a black man does indeed play a man who is of Arabic descent. In doing so, the filmmakers show that it didn’t matter the race of character. Considering the state of society now with the current issues of economic stratification, immigration from Northern Africa in France and the stereotypes associated with those issues – the filmmakers did what they needed to do and create a character to whom people can relate and adore. Besides, talk about feel-good movie moments to make you forget all the hard political reality – Omar Sy's smile is just plain infectious.
Lets just hope the filmmakers who have their hands all over the rights to a remake in the US don’t forget the cultural connotation of this film and its French origins. There is a reason the film has resonated so strongly with the French, and there is no need for another classic French comedie to be ruined by American humoristes; i.e. Diner du cons (1999) remade as Dinner for Schmucks (2010), ruined in part thanks to Puritanical repression.
As we can see odd extremisms have their way of causing even odder conclusions – so here’s to hoping that someone’s Uncle Tom doesn’t “blacken”, what was in my opinion, a wonderfully told story when it hits the US. Thanks for the stir!

Eric Schnedecker

I understand Jay Weissberg's point but the production is investing on a talent who's been very successful and popular over the last years on French Pay TV, Canal +, with a comedy duo:

In fact co-star Omar Sy's personality is similar to the character he's playing in Untouchables and again, he's been developing it as a comedian on TV and on stage.
It seems to pay off for the production.

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