Funny and foreign



Two young men transport belongings on a motdobikeFrom Where Do We Go Now? Left to right: Roukoz (Ali Haidar) and Nassim (Kevin Abboud). Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Two foreign language comedies out this month give Hollywood a run for its money with feel-good crowd-pleasers. First to Paris. The Intouchables is a buddy story, pairing a paraplegic aristocrat with a North African immigrant from one of the city’s projects.

On first impression, Driss (rising star Omar Sy) is an unlikely candidate for the job of upper crust caregiver. An ex con, untrained in nursing, he’s just looking for a signed rejection slip so that he can claim his unemployment benefit. However, when Driss bursts into the office of wheel chair-bound Philippe rather than wait his turn for the interview, he ends up being trialled for the job.

Philippe, whose injuries come from a hang-gliding accident, warms to the younger man’s direct attitude and crude humour, a breath of fresh air in the luxurious but stuffy household. With echoes of Trading Places, the film plays on cultural differences epitomized by their taste in music – one likes Vivaldi, the other Earth, Wind & Fire – and also with predictable differences towards fine art, opera and romance.

The Intouchableswas a huge hit in France. Its brand of feel-good humour feels manufactured for the masses. While it relies on upturning cultural stereotypes, it does so by first reinforcing a multitude of stereotypes.

There are some duff lines, like Philippe’s over-flowery prose in a love letter-writing scene or a clunky montage showing caregiver applicants in too cynical a light for dramatic effect. But while the script often lacks subtlety, the two leads make up for it with superb performances as the odd-couple: François Cluzet, expressing an impressive range of emotions in the role of a man paralyzed from the neck down, makes a good sparring partner for the charismatic Omar Sy’s bad boy antics. It’s this chemistry that makes it worth watching.

If women were in charge, the world would be less violent. That’s the implication of Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (the meaning of the title is clear at the end), with a storyline that mashes sombre comedy, tragedy and choreographed musical.

The setting is a remote, sun-bleached village in the Middle East where the church and mosque stand side by side. Geographically unspecific, the village is surrounded by landmines and accessible only by a damaged bridge. Reception for the village’s one television is spotty and newspaper delivery unreliable.

With a dusty graveyard full of young men, the Christian and Muslim women conspire to keep volatile male tempers from flaring through all sorts of bizarre ruses, ranging from feigning miracles to distracting them with a truckload of blonde, Ukrainian strippers.

It’s an unusual treatment of religious tension, veering from farcical comedy to tragedy. Labaki clearly wants it to be real, showing how violence begets grief and even curtailing her own character’s blossoming, inter-faith romance. But the switches in style and tone sometimes make you think you are watching different movies. A choreographed funeral march where a group of women clutching photos of their loved ones beat their chests in unison, is arrestingly cinematic. As I left the cinema, I found myself humming the catchy hashish song, written by Labaki’s husband, which the ensemble of women perform during an exuberant bake scene. The parts do not add up to a greater whole, but it has some enjoyable moments.

Robert Alstead writes at

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