Generally, moviegoers don't think of a film about a unique friendship between a rich quadriplegic and an ex-con from the projects as summer movie fare. But the French comedy drama "The Intouchables" is defying convention in a big way -- and putting up blockbuster numbers, to boot.
Released in France at the end of last year, "The Intouchables" (English interpretation: 'Untouchable') has taken the international film community by storm and become the most successful foreign film in history with an astonishing take of more than $356 million at the global box office.
And the tally is sure to grow from there. Already the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. this year, the film, co-written and co-directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, expands from limited to wide release across the country this weekend.
In a phone interview with Nakache and Toledano this week, the filmmakers told me they're still trying to wrap their heads around the success of the film.
"It was impossible to think when were making the film two years ago to think that it would be seen in as many countries as it has," Nakache said. "In general, when you do a movie in France, you have three weeks of promotion, it will play in maybe five or six countries, many of them French-speaking countries, and that's it. You go back home to work on something else. Now, it's eight months after the release and we're still speaking with you about the movie."
Inspired by a true-life story and subsequent documentary film about Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker, Abdel Sellou, "The Intouchables" stars French film icon Francois Cluzet as Philippe, a paralyzed French aristocrat who surprises friends and associates when he hires a con artist, Driss (Omar Sy), to become his caretaker.
As Driss shows no pity for his new employer (which is exactly what Philippe wants), the two men form a unique bond, slowly reveal their very different personal lives and heartbreaks, and most of all, inspire each other.
While "The Intouchables" addresses serious subject matter, the film has been lauded as much for being funny as it has for being a touching tearjerker. The filmmakers credit the success to the chemistry of their lead actors.
"We know that we are very lucky to have actors for these parts," Toledano said. "Like the characters, they've had two different life experiences. Francois Cluzet, a very famous actor in France, has not only made a lot of films, but has done a lot of theater. Omar Sy is more instinctive. He's never done theater. They're like the characters in the film. Their differences in their backgrounds are very extreme, yet they have a very special chemistry between them. It's graceful. It's magic."
Another kind of magic "The Intouchables" has going for it is its universal appeal, much like another summer blockbuster, the superhero extravaganza "The Avengers."
And while the plots of the two films are dramatically different, Nakache believes there are definitely similarities between the characters.
"There's a common point with 'The Avengers.' Driss and Philippe in the movie save each others' lives," Nakache observed. "So in a way they are superheroes -- except in our movie, they are true heroes."
Ultimately, Toledano and his colleagues believe the response to "The Intouchables" is an indicator that movie fans want more human stories -- tales about triumphs of the spirit -- when they go to the theaters.
"During the French promotion of the film, Francois was saying something that was very smart about how heroes are changing -- 'The heroes of yesterday are not the heroes of today,'" Toledano added. "Yesterday, we made movies about heroes with superpowers and now, we are more interested in people that have powers like you and me. That shows us there's a real change in what fans want out of cinema."