French cinema, Hollywood and the ‘interracial buddy comedy’

David Pettersen talks about his article ‘Transnational blackface, neo-minstrelsy and the ‘French Eddie Murphy’ in Intouchables’ 24:1 (2016)

What does this article tell your readers about modern and contemporary France?

The idea for this article originated in my experience teaching Intouchables (2011) to undergraduate French majors and minors. Olivier Nakache and Éric Tolédano’s film was immensely popular in France, becoming the second most popular French language film at the domestic box office behind Danny Boon’s Bienvenue chez les ch’tis (2008). However, the extent of the film’s popularity with young American viewers surprised and unsettled me. In talking with other colleagues who have taught the film, I realized that my experience was far from an isolated case. Intouchables engages with the narrative patterns and tropes of Hollywood cinema, specifically the interracial buddy comedy, and I wondered if this had something to do with the film’s popularity at home and abroad. Consequently, I set out to understand how and why Nakache and Tolédano used Hollywood tropes for visualizing race in popular cinema in France at the start of the 2010s.

Like many of the films that can be categorized under Ginette Vincendeau’s term the ‘comedy of ethnic integration’,[1] Intouchables activates cultural stereotypes of rich and poor and black and white with very little concern for political correctness. It’s easy to condemn the film for the ways in which it invokes such clichés, and indeed many critics at the time of its release and since have done so. However, I don’t think it’s a simple matter of the film reproducing or deconstructing stereotypes, but a complex mixture of both, something we could also say about other contemporary French comedies like Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon dieu (2014). It is this complex mixture that I set out to understand for myself and also for Anglophone students of French who encounter the film.

What key themes do you address and how does your argument build upon and differ from existing arguments in the field?

Film scholars who analyse iterative commercial forms of filmmaking like Hollywood cinema have long been used to dealing with films as ambivalent objects that are ideologically incoherent.

On the one hand, ideological incoherence has sometimes served as a more and less conscious economic principle for commercial production because it allows for a film about sensitive subjects to appeal to multiple audiences who can simultaneously read the same film in ways sympathetic to their own political or social points of view. On the other, ideological incoherence serves a particular social function in comedy.

Raphaëlle Moine has argued that French comedy, like comedy in general, functions as a social laboratory where different ideas about society and identity can be tested against each other.[2] I did not want simply to reproduce journalists’ and popular critics’ sense that the film was racist and reductive in its representation of France’s suburban poor. Moine’s metaphors of experimentation and the laboratory apply particularly well to the use of stereotypes in Nakache and Tolédano’s film.

The desire to think about the film’s mixture of critiquing and reinforcing stereotypes and about the influence on the film of Hollywood popular traditions for representing race and class led me to the significant academic literature on blackface and minstrelsy in the United States. The traditions of blackface and minstrelsy are very much still a part of American cultural life, especially during the age of the country’s first black President, and black comedians resist and appropriate these tropes in different ways in their acts. Black comedians who engage with the kinds of humour in this tradition walk the same tricky line between critiquing and reinforcing cultural stereotypes that I see at work in Intouchables.

The Franco-American hybridity of the film has much to tell us about why Intouchables plays so well to American audiences. Furthermore, it offers an interesting case study of how French filmmakers look abroad to American culture for ways of discussing race in popular cinema.

France’s republican institutions are notoriously colourblind, eschewing categories of race in public policy and statistics, though this has done little to combat everyday acts of discrimination. Popular films that deal, however problematically, with questions of cultural diversity in France have the strategic value of making those questions visible. In terms of the Anglophone audience of French majors and minors, I didn’t want to be that academic who tells them that they can’t enjoy something, but rather I wanted to make them conscious of how their viewing pleasure interacts in ways both interesting and sometimes problematic with their own cultural memories of representations of race in American television and Hollywood cinema.

How does this article fit into your previous/ current/ future research?

This article is part of an ongoing research project about how contemporary French filmmakers bring cinematic visualisations of race and class inequality in Hollywood cinema of different genres into French popular films that deal with the banlieue.

My article, and the broader book project of which it is a part, challenges the view that French cinema’s “true” identity and history at home and abroad lies in its auteurist and art cinema. Popular French cinema exists in France as a mass medium in dialogue with transnational, historical and global trends in mass culture. Furthermore, this dialogue is part of these films’ social function in and beyond France.

For these reasons, I consciously chose in this essay not to construct Tolédano and Nakache as auteurs, even popular ones, nor to situate the film too much within the rest of their work. I will say their next film, Samba (2014), represents another iteration of themes and narrative elements from Intouchables transposed to the context of undocumented workers in France rather than the suburban poor, though of course there are many points of overlap between the two categories. I do not find Samba quite as successful or interesting as Intouchables either as a viewing experience or as an instance of popular social critique. It activates some offensive colonialist clichés about amorous relationships between a black man and a white woman, but the most revealing moments in the film are the scenes that represent the difficulties of getting the proper paperwork for residency cards and the limbo of deportation prison. It will be interesting to see where Nakache and Tolédano chose to go in their next feature film.

[1] Vincendeau, Ginette. “Minority Report.” Sight and Sound, June 2015, 24-25.

[2] Moine, Raphaëlle. “Contemporary French Comedy as Social Laboratory.” In A Companion to Contemporary French Cinema, edited by Alistair Fox, Michel Marie, Raphaëlle Moine, and Hilary Radner, 233–55. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

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