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Boffo ‘Intouchables’ touches nerve, funnybone

Performing well at box offices across the globe

PARIS — It may be a French cultural phenomenon, but Gallic box office smash “Intouchables” (Untouchable) has roots that are planted as deeply in Hollywood as they are in the soil of the typical French comedy.

The pic has earned €110.13 million ($140.3 million) though Jan.9. in France (making it Gaul’s third biggest B.O. hit ever) and has performed well in Belgium ($6.1 million) and Switzerland ($6.5 million), where it opened Nov. 2. It has already been sold Stateside, to the Weinstein Co., which also acquired remake rights.

Intouchables” also smashed the German B.O., grossing $3 million on 157 copies since opening Jan. 5. German distrib Senator has added 200 more copies. Spanish rollout set for March 9.

Produced by Quad Films and repped worldwide by Gaumont, the film is the fourth feature from creative team Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, part of a new breed of French filmmakers who grew up watching Hollywood movies. With “Intouchables,” they’ve been able to lure the kind of young adult auds who aren’t typically drawn to Gallic comedies.

While raising serious issues such as immigration, unemployment, social exclusion and physical handicap that help ground the pic in French society, “Intouchables” owes its success mainly to an action-packed, gag-laden plot peopled with archetype Hollywood characters, replete with a happy ending.

“American cinema is a real reference, and not only the buddy comedies,” Toledano says. “Our range spans Woody Allen to Alexander Payne. We’re also fans of ‘The Wire’ and its realism — that greatly influenced us for certain scenes of ‘Intouchables,’ notably the ones set in the projects.”

The genesis of the buddy pic was all French, however, inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy aristocrat who became a paraplegic after an accident, and hired Abdel Sellou, a young man from the ghetto as a caretaker. The two formed an unlikely friendship that empowered each other’s lives.

“There was something politically incorrect in the way Philippe and Abdel saw each other that enabled us to write the dialogue and situations with great freedom,” says Toledano, who discovered the story with Nakache while watching Pozzo di Borgo and Sellou on a talkshow in 2001.

Nakache says riffing on underpriveleged suburban youth that has been scapegoated in French political campaigns plays to themes that are almost a taboo in French society. “The idea was to turn these fears into laughter and hopefully overcome them,” he says.

Aurelien Ferenczi, senior film critic at culture mag Telerama, notes that the format has been used in many American comedies, notably in John Landis’ “Trading Places.” “But the fact that it’s a true story is an important aspect for French audiences: it gives the film more credibility and weight,” Ferenczi says.

While reviews within Gaul have been mostly positive, others have not been as kind. Variety said “Intouchables” “flings (around) the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens.”

But Ferenczi says French and American critics didn’t watch “Intouchables” through the same lens. “Our social context is different,” he says. “There is such an under-representation of black minorities in French cinema that local audiences found it refreshing to see a black man in the lead role.”

Indeed, “Intouchables” has been the kind of critical success in France that Dany Boon’s “Nothing to Declare,” for instance, wasn’t. Like Boon’s 2008 “Welcome to the Sticks,” however, “Intouchables” has been a rural hit, selling 80% of its tickets outside Paris.

The performances of Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, the pic’s leading duo, have been applauded by critics and auds alike.

Sy is a comedian who appears daily in “SAV,” a short-format laffer that airs on Canal Plus in primetime. Like his character, Driss, the actor grew up in Trappes, an underprivileged suburb near Paris.

Toledano says that, like the Italian social comedies of the ’60s of Dino Risi and Ettorre Scola, he and Nakache were aiming to make a film that reflects the times. The score boasts an international mix of soul, disco and classic hits from Nina Simone, Earth Wind and Fire, George Benson and Ludivico Einaudi, and plays a big part in “Intouchables,” as it did in Nakache and Toledano’s “So Happy Together,” “Those Happy Days” and “Je Prefere qu’on reste amis.”

Weinstein chief operating officer David Glasser says the company is happy for the Gallic success of “Intouchables,” and looks forward not only to the film’s U.S. release, but also to an eventual remake.

In the meantime, the pic has certainly struck a chord in Gaul, where Marine Le Pen, the far-right party leader, is one of the frontrunners of the upcoming presidential election, and where moving up the social ladder is difficult for minorities born from immigrant parents.

“It’s a film that brings people together at a time of economic recession,” Ferenczi says. “It shows that it’s possible for two people who come from different social and ethnic backgrounds — a minority from the projects and a white millionaire — to live together and get along.”

Rachel Abrams contributed to this report.

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