Class Act

7 minute read
Vivienne Walt / Paris

If you drive North out of paris toward Charles de Gaulle Airport, the city’s grand buildings and boulevards give way to high-rise housing projects that stretch on for miles, sealed off from the highway by concrete barriers. Dominated by Arab and African immigrants and beset by high unemployment rates, these working-class suburbs, or banlieues, rarely get a big-screen closeup. But one of them, Bondy, is now immortalized in France’s megahit comedy The Intouchables, about the unlikely, life-changing friendship between a rich white quadriplegic and his poor black caregiver from the banlieues. Filmed partly in Bondy, The Intouchables is the highest-grossing French movie of all time; an estimated 1 in 3 people in France has seen it. Budgeted at just $12 million, the film has raked in more than $340 million worldwide–it was the No. 1 movie in Germany for nine weeks straight–and the Weinstein Co. opens it in the U.S. in limited release on May 25.

For some residents of Bondy, the movie’s enormous success transcends profit. “I cried when I saw the film, because this is where I am from,” says Youness Bourimech, a local entrepreneur whose Moroccan parents raised him in one of Bondy’s aging projects and who has seen the film four times. “It shows that it is possible to come from the banlieues and make something good of your life.”

No one captures that sense of possibility as vividly as the film’s lead actor, Omar Sy. He plays Driss, an ex-convict of African descent who, as part of his new job, goes from living in a cramped, drafty apartment with his immigrant family to a sprawling mansion on Paris’ Left Bank, where he sleeps under a Renaissance painting, tears around town in a Maserati and conspires to find a love interest for his disabled employer, Philippe (Franois Cluzet). Sy, 34, commands The Intouchables with his rapid-fire banter, devil-may-care nerve and live-wire physicality. In February, he became the first black man to win the Best Actor Csar, France’s equivalent of the Academy Award, beating out The Artist’s Oscar-winning Jean Dujardin. Sy is perhaps France’s biggest black star–and becoming one of its biggest stars, period.

For Sy (pronounced See), Driss was an intimately familiar figure and, he says, a “bittersweet” one. The fourth of eight children, Sy grew up in an impoverished housing project west of Paris in Trappes, home to thousands of African and Arab immigrants. His Senegalese father worked in an auto-parts factory; his mother, newly arrived from Mauritania, cleaned office buildings, just as Driss’s aunt does in the film. “There are two Frances that exist side by side,” Sy says over coffee one morning in the office of his wife, a publicist, in Paris’ tony 16th arrondissement. “For me, it was only when I started to work that I saw the other France, that I heard other ways of speaking. We always knew it existed. But we didn’t ever see it.”

Much like his character in The Intouchables, Sy crossed the class-color line thanks to one key person–in Sy’s case, the well-known French-Moroccan actor Jamel Debbouze, a close childhood friend from Trappes. When Sy was 18, Debbouze began inviting him to do sketches and impersonations on a comedy show he created for Paris’ Radio Nova, some of them in the slang of the banlieues, an idiom rarely heard on French airwaves in the mid-’90s. Sy built on his fame at Canal Plus television as one half of the wildly popular comedy team Omar and Fred; their two-minute sketch show is still a nightly feature of French prime time. “He was really funny, a charming, sympathetic guy,” says Bernard Zekri, who worked at Canal Plus then and is now editor in chief of the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles. “Sy is almost an idol among French youth,” Zekri adds. “He has credibility because he comes from Trappes.”

Sy lends a lot of credibility to The Intouchables, a broad farce that doesn’t tinker much with its familiar buddy-movie formula. The Hollywood Reporter called it “corny, calculating and commercial,” while other critics have suggested it traffics in ethnic stereotypes. In the U.S., Variety charged that Driss and Philippe’s relationship is tarnished by “Uncle Tom racism”–a peculiarly American accusation to aim at a very French film but also a hint that the movie’s coarse charms may not translate as easily in the States as they have in Europe. In case The Intouchables 1.0 doesn’t touch a nerve in the U.S., Harvey Weinstein has also acquired the English-language-remake rights, though that version would likely be missing the original’s keystone: Omar Sy. Whatever the flaws of The Intouchables, Sy’s charisma leaps off the screen. With his rubbery smile and rollicking laugh, he turns Driss into an everyman hero capable of single-handedly smashing the racial divide.

The seismic popularity of The Intouchables spurred weeks of soul-searching among talking heads on French TV: Why did a slapstick romp about interracial, interclass brotherhood catch fire among the populace? Part of it was the leading man, and part of it was timing: the movie opened in November, near the kickoff of a toxic presidential campaign in which candidates continually one-upped one another with anti-immigrant rhetoric. Embattled President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed halving immigration quotas and vowed to ban halal meat from public schools. Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen pinned France’s financial woes in good measure on immigrants and went on to win 18% of the first-round vote. (Her father, extreme rightist and career xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen, saw The Intouchables as a cautionary metaphor: “France is like this handicapped person stuck in this wheelchair,” he said, “and we are going to have to wait for the help of these banlieue youngsters and immigrants in general.” Weinstein called his statements “repulsive.”) Meanwhile, a group supporting the eventual victor, Socialist Franois Hollande, created a cheeky pro-Hollande campaign video shot partly in the banlieues and scored to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s propulsive “Niggas in Paris.”

Especially amid a stormy election season and economic stagnation, “there is a kind of rupture in French society,” says Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, an antidiscrimination organization in Paris. “A good part of the French population knows nothing about the banlieues where immigrant-origin people live. There is real tension around unemployment and the economic crisis, rooted in a politics that is oriented toward scapegoats.” In this poisonous environment, the melting-pot humanity of The Intouchables was a blast of sweet fresh air. “Here was a message that we could all live together,” Zekri says. “It clicked with people.”

For the people of the banlieues, the rupture that Sopo describes cuts deep. Unemployment in Bondy hovers around 20%, double the national average. Bondy resident Bourimech estimates that only 2 of every 10 people he grew up with have middle-class jobs. According to Mahmoud Bourassi, the director of a community center in Bondy, one of the many challenges that communities in the banlieues face is a tangible psychological alienation from Paris’ prosperous zones. “For people here, there is an invisible wall around the pripherique,” Bourassi says, referring to the highway that rings Paris’ 20 arrondissements. “We talk about people on ‘the other side.'”

Sy has passed through that invisible wall. His life has changed markedly since his Trappes days. He now lives in a semirural town on the outskirts of Paris with his wife and four children. To prepare for The Intouchables, Sy spent time back in Trappes, where much of his family still lives. “I thought I’d lost some of those reflexes, the way of talking,” he says. “But it was not gone, because I grew up there.” He remembers the days before he was a national celebrity, when his wife, who is white, would go alone to scope out apartments for them to rent. “Otherwise we wouldn’t get anything,” Sy says. “For me, those days are over. But they are not over in France.”

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