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In The Extraordinary, the duo behind The Intouchables revisit society's most excluded

 

THE EXTRAORDINARY
directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache

From the makers of the French comedy hit The Intouchables comes a feel-good-but-gritty film about two ordinary Parisian men sacrificing their personal lives to improve the lot of some of society’s most excluded: young people with autism.

The film arrives here (and in Australia) after two name changes – it had the dubious title of The Specials in the rest of the world. Its original French name, Hors Normes, loosely translates to “outside social norms”.

Vincent Cassel eschews his usual tough-guy roles (Black Swan, Eastern Promises) to play Bruno, a gentle, quietly Jewish man who is no good at dating. Bruno and his mate, Malik (Reda Kateb), work 24/7, providing services and housing for those the state bureaucracy considers too “dangerous” or “complex” to deal with.

Into their family of helpers comes a troubled young man, Dylan, whose lack of understanding of autism makes him a stand-in for an audience who may hold assumptions that will swiftly be overturned.

With The Intouchables, writer-directors Toledano and Nakache established their capacity for breaking stereotypes and opening up dialogue about how disability is handled on-screen by casting (able-bodied) French film star François Cluzet as a quadriplegic whose unexpected encounter with Omar Sy’s French-African, streetwise caregiver brings him a renewed joie de vivre. The film was an enormous hit worldwide, spawning remakes in various languages. Those rightly concerned about issues of representation may be appeased that this film’s supporting cast embraces people with autism, including non-actor Benjamin Lesieur as Joseph. Through careful and thoughtful direction, the directors (one of whom has an autistic family member) coax a terrific performance out of Lesieur.

Both films are based on real people, and The Extraordinary is well-meaning to its soul. But compared with The Intouchables, it feels less likely to be remade abroad. The story is much more serious, with a shocking opening scene that establishes, not the hilarity of an odd-couple tale that will subvert expectations about class, race and friendship, but the distressing reality of a young woman hurtling through the streets screaming and, in a sense, truly untouchable.

After that, the pace cannot match The Intouchables’ boundless energy. Although there are some affecting moments of kindness and compassion, and good messaging around how to treat people with autism, this is more gruelling than engaging.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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