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The aristocrat, the criminal, and the buddy movie that France adores

John Lichfield tells the tale of the unlikely friendship film set to break box-office records
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An unlikely "buddy movie" has struck a nerve in a nation stalked by economic calamity and beset by political divisions and is threatening to break all French box-office records.

Les Intouchables (The Untouchables), which has sold 5 million tickets in two weeks, is the story of a friendship between a wheel-chair bound aristocrat and a young, black criminal from the troubled suburbs of Paris. The film, though played for laughs, is based on a true story.

Like a string of French feel-good movies in recent years, from Amélie in 2001 to Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis in 2008, Les Intouchables has become not just a film but a "social phenomenon". But what does its runaway success say about the mood of France in the midst of a European crisis and on the verge of a critical presidential election next spring?

Amélie was a sweet, unashamedly nostalgic, "franco-French" film, loved by audiences worldwide but hated by leftist French movie critics. It appeared months before the presidential election of 2002 in which the extreme nationalist National Front stunned the world by reaching the second round run-off.

With another election due next year, Les Intouchables suggests that a racially and socially divided France has everything to gain from bridging its differences. As Le Monde put it: "The film is a metaphor of the benefits of merging an Old France paralysed by its privileges with the life force of a young France of second generation immigrants."

French critics are divided on the qualities of an uneven but beautifully acted movie, but it has been an undeniable hit. A cinema exit poll published yesterday found that 68 per cent of movie-goers liked Les Intouchables so much they planned to go a second time. This compares with the 32 per cent "would-go-again" rate of French viewers of Titanic in 1997. James Cameron's blockbuster still holds the French all-time box-office record with 20,758,887 seats sold.

Intriguingly, the same cinema exit poll found that Les Intouchables appealed to the young and the old, to men and women and to all social classes – but that it was more popular among voters of the Left (76 per cent) than voters of the Right (65 per cent). The fact that the political question was asked shows how far Les Intouchables has become a social phenomenon.

With 5 million tickets sold in two weeks, despite its release to a relatively small number of cinemas, Les Intouchables has broken the French record of entries per "film copy". The movie is on course to overtake Les Ch'tis, which became the most successful French film in 2008 (20,479,826 tickets sold). Deals have also been signed for worldwide release and a possible Hollywood remake.

The film, directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, is based on the true story of the friendship between the quadriplegic heir to a Champagne fortune and an Algerian minor criminal hired in 1996 as his minder, nurse and chauffeur. In the movie, the aristocrat, Philippe, played with great warmth and humour by François Cluzet, defies his family to hire Driss, a young black criminal. He explains (as did the real life Philippe Pozzo di Borgo in his autobiographical book in 2001) that he wanted to spend his days with someone who would "not constantly pity him".

Driss is played by a French television comedian, Omar Sy, who grew up in a troubled south Paris suburb and, like Cluzet, gives a brilliant performance which disguises the weaknesses of an occasionally crass screenplay.

Negative critics have protested that the film is little more than a string of clichés about the troubled banlieues on the outskirts of the city (crime-riddled but full of warmth) and the aristocratic quartiers of Paris (uptight and obsessed with opera and abstract art).

They also object to the humorous treatment of Philippe's handicap (such as the scene where Driss pours boiling water on his friend/employer's legs to see what happens). The real-life Philippe insists that Abdel Sellou, the model for Driss, was, if anything, even more rough-edged than the young man in the movie.

"I was 42. He was 21," he said recently. "We were two desperadoes looking for a way out: the wealthy tetraplegic and a young guy straight from jail who wanted to wreck everything; two guys on the margins of society who came to depend on one another."

Many scenes in the film – such as high-speed escapades through Paris in Philippe's Maserati – are taken from real life. And, Abdel's "handicap jokes" were even worse than those in the screenplay, it appears.

The movie has been universally hailed by support groups for the handicapped in France. Jean-Marie Barbier, president of the Association des Paralysés, said that the film was a triumph because "at a time of economic and social depression" it suggests that "friendship and equality are possible between people who seem utterly divided".

A simple feel-good movie? Or a harbinger of the national mood when France decides whether to re-elect an often divisive right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, next spring?

French Fancies: The best of Gallic film-making

La Haine (1995)

Mathieu Kassovitz's low-budget gritty social commentary follows three young men in a poor Parisian suburb in the wake of a riot. Its striking black-and-white imagery was an explosive attack on the generational, racial, and class divides of his native France, which still resonate today.

Amélie (2001)

Starring Audrey Tautou, Amélie is the story of an innocent Parisian waitress who tries to help her neighbours find love. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's candy-coloured romantic comedy was an art-cinema sensation and became the most successful French-language film ever in the US.

Breathless (1960)

Jean-Luc Godard's seminal introduction to French New Wave cinema follows petty criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) through Paris. It was an international hit and marked Godard as one of the world's most influential directors.

Jean de Florette (1986)

Claude Berri's successful big-budget drama was adapted from Marcel Pagnol's novel about a battle over a spring in a remote farming community. It starred Gérard Depardieu, Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil.