In France, James Cameron’s Titanic stands as the No. 1 movie in box office history.
Second is a 2008 Provencal farce, Welcome to the Sticks.
And third on the list of all-time biggest cinema draws? Well, that would be The Intouchables, the indigenous buddy comedy that opened quietly last fall and quickly earned $166 million within Gallic borders. Outside of France, it has earned $173 million, for a blockbuster tally of $339 million.
Harvey Weinstein, the man who acquired another French title, The Artist, and rode it all the way to five Academy Awards this year, is releasing The Intouchables in U.S. theaters on Friday. And Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the film’s co-writers and directors, couldn’t be more ecstatic.
Or more surprised.
"It was totally unexpected," Toledano says of the response their film has garnered thus far. He and Nakache, who have known each other for 20 years — they were counselors at a summer camp and discovered a shared affinity for Annie Hall — dropped into Philadelphia recently to talk up their comedy, in which an upper-crust Paris aesthete paralyzed from the neck down, played by Francois Cluzet, hires a black ex-con from the projects, played by Omar Sy, to take care of him. Over the course of car chases, culture clashes, and even a para-gliding trip, the unlikely duo become fast friends.
"It’s a low-budget movie with no big stars," Toledano says, listing the reasons why his movie shouldn’t have been a hit.
"Omar has a TV show in France, but he was not a cinema actor, really. Francois is a big star, but he is not, how you say, bankable … he is not like Tom Cruise, for example.
“So, the two guys are not terribly famous, and they are not terribly attractive, so it is unexpected.
“But the story brings the people into the theater, as does the tone of the movie, more than everything else."
The Intouchables, which was nominated for nine Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and won an actor prize for Sy, is inspired by a true story. Early in 2003, Nakache and Toledano saw a documentary on French TV about Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a millionaire who was left a quadriplegic after an accident, and Abdel Sellou, a struggling Algerian who became his aide, and then his close friend.
"We saw the many dimensions of this story," Nakache says. "It was a really symbolic story, as a metaphor of society: two people, one with a physical handicap, and the other with a social handicap, and in a pragmatic way they need each other. And they save each other’s lives, and the humor was really present. …
“We watched this documentary and we were sure that we had a real subject for a comedy."
Because they had already worked with Sy — a tall, loose-limbed comedian with a killer smile — and wanted to give him a lead role, they changed the Abdel the Arab to Driss, a Senegalese African.
"In France, we have an expression, ‘the youths of the projects,’" explains Toledano, "and it is a mixed group of mostly Arabs and blacks. So, the cultural consequence of changing from one to another is not so significant. We know it is totally different in a country like the United States — when you show blacks, you are saying something about the black community, but in France… it’s a different story."
Both Pozzo di Borgo and Sellou have signed off on the fictionalized film version of their relationship — not only signed off on it, but signed their names to the back of big royalty checks. Pozzo di Borgo, Toledano, and Nakache, too, have donated a percentage of their substantial profits from the film to national programs to help the handicapped and integrate them into French society.
There have been criticisms of the film for what some perceive as a naive depiction of class and race relations, for its sunny embrace of multiculturalist themes in a country that has been rife with cultural and ethnic tensions. Nakache says phooey.
"First, it’s a true a story, so it’s not a feel-good comedy with a naive dimension," he counters. "It’s a true story. I didn’t invent it.
“We want to make a movie that brings people together, but we have a special weapon in our movie, which is comedy, which is humor. … But we didn’t compromise. We didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the real relationship of Philippe and Abdel."
Nakache and Toledano have been taking meetings in Hollywood. They’ve been offered good scripts and the chance to work with American stars. But they’re wary, too. Right now, they have final cut, complete creative control, and an innate feel for the country where they live and where their movies play.
All of that could change if they make an English-language film.
"For a director, it’s always a dream to come to America and work in Hollywood, and to have the access of the great actors," says Toledano.
"What can we do? Shall we go? I don’t know. I’m a little bit scared."
Paul McCartney opens for "The Intouchables." When The Intouchables opens in theaters Friday, it will be preceded by the directorial debut of a rather famous fellow: Sir Paul McCartney, former Beatle, composer and author, has made a short black-and-white film, "My Valentine," starring Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp. Set to his song of the same name, McCartney’s mini-movie features the Portman and Depp characters translating the lyrics of the song by way of sign language. Stella McCartney, Sir Paul’s fashion designer daughter, came up with the concept, and with Portman’s clothes, too.