As any masterful strategist knows, picking the perfect enemy is as important as selecting one's ally.
But why did Hollywood producer and Oscar award-magnet Harvey Weinstein publicly trash the godfather of France's far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, just days after a Weinstein import, The Artist, quietly rocked the Academy Awards?
If Weinstein were almost any other American producer fresh from shepherding a French-made and mostly silent black-and-white film to five improbable Oscars, he would probably still be polishing those trophies and trying to capitalize at the box office.
But as an aggressive movie-industry legend whose films have won 86 Oscars, Weinstein is not like other producers. The television show Entourage immortalized Weinstein -- especially in an episode titled, "Sorry, Harvey" -- in which a stunning, foul-mouthed, abusive film producer named "Harvey Weingard" curses out waiters, threatens to destroy various actors' careers, and brandishes a knife over dinner with one of the main characters. (A Weinstein rep commented to Variety magazine in 2007 that the producer thinks Entourage is a "fun and entertaining show.")
So perhaps it is no wonder that Weinstein is already hard at work to make sure that France's enormously successful film, The Intouchables, enjoys a similar reception in the United States.
The fish-out-of-water, interracial buddy movie tells the story of a poor, young black man from a suburban ghetto who is hired to care for a bourgeois, white, quadriplegic Parisian man. It may not sound like a recipe for surefire comedy, but the feel-good movie about a former convict who teaches his wheelchair-bound boss how to live again has become the second-highest-grossing film on French soil, ever. (It has sold nearly one ticket for every three French citizens.) The lion's share of the film's $250 million take has come from France, a country with one-fifth of the U.S. population -- meaning that an equivalent success in the United States would be a billion-dollar movie. That's bigger than Titanic or Avatar.
Critically, the film scored excellent reviews in France. Highbrow critics tended to note their suspicions about the politically correct-sounding core concept, only to revel in the film's on-screen execution and the performances of its acting duo. Most ranked the film as good or excellent. At one press screening, jaded French film critics -- generally a cerebral group that avoids public displays of affection -- actually applauded, vigorously. The left-leaning Nouvel Observateur magazine went further, commenting: "There is no point in beating around the bush: The Intouchables is a miracle."
The public felt the same, only more so. The film's average ranking out of some 5,500 reviews on France's AlloCiné website is 4.5 stars out of five, with 58 percent giving it the maximum. And two days before the Oscars, one of the stars of The Intouchables, Omar Sy -- who plays the ex-con -- beat out Jean Dujardin of The Artist for the best-actor César award (the French equivalent of the Oscar), making Sy the first black man in French history to win in that category.
By that time, the Weinstein Company had already snapped up the film's American distribution and its English-language remake rights. But in the run-up to the March 1 U.S. premier of the film at a French film festival in New York, Weinstein needed to overcome one potentially major obstacle: a stunningly vicious Variety magazine critique from last September that threatens to shape the thinking of other American reviewers as they head to press screenings ahead of the film's May 25 theatrical release in the United States.
The trade magazine's reviewer, Jay Weissberg, lambasted The Intouchables as a movie that "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens." Weissberg called the film "offensive," and he wrote that Sy is "nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down' by replacing Vivaldi with 'Boogie Wonderland' and showing off his moves on the dance floor."
Twisting the dagger, Weissberg added that Sy's charisma is squandered on "a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race."
They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but Weinstein is savvy enough to know that bringing over a French comedy that might be perceived as racist won't fly in America. Weinstein could have simply attacked the critic, but that might have looked petty. So Weinstein initiated a contretemps strategy: He attacked Le Pen -- something that wouldn't have been possible if the old Frenchman hadn't already lodged himself into debate over the film.
It is, in many ways, difficult to imagine these two men -- the ultimate Hollywood battler and the French political beast -- in the same universe, much less taking part in the same debate. Weinstein dines at snazzy restaurants where attractive wannabe-actor waiters cater to his every whim; Le Pen used to wear an eye patch and has been the target of multiple assassination attempts.
But perhaps it was inevitable. After all, Weinstein has been involved in the U.S. release of around 30 French films, including Amélie, the triptych Bleu, Blanc, Rouge, and Delicatessen. Le Pen's role in French society is akin to that of Rush Limbaugh in the United States. The Frenchman may have been an active politician for more than 40 years, but he has never aspired to hold a share of real power (unlike his daughter Marine), instead preferring to push the national political debate further and further to the right -- particularly when it comes to immigration and the dilution of white, Christian, French culture. And like Limbaugh, Jean-Marie Le Pen has rarely encountered a sensitive hot topic that he wouldn't use to try to enlarge the reach of his megaphone.
In a televised Jan. 29 interview on France 3, Le Pen offered a critique of The Intouchables that was nearly as caustic as that in Variety, but for a different reason. "France is like this cripple stuck in this wheelchair, and we are going to have to wait for the help of these [ghetto] youngsters and from immigration in general," Le Pen said. "I don't subscribe at all to this way of seeing things."
"It would be a disaster if France would find itself in the same situation as this unfortunate handicapped person."
Weinstein seized on the comments by the fixture of France's far-right. Why? If your film is being accused of racial insensitivity, pick a fight with a real racist.
The 83-year-old Le Pen may have passed on the reins of the National Front party that he founded four decades ago to his daughter last year, but he continues to provoke from semi-retirement. It is a fitting continuation for a man who has repeatedly stoked up trouble, whether during his numerous presidential campaigns or otherwise. In his 1986 book, Pour la France, he asserted that France should prioritize European émigrés rather than the more numerous "Third World" immigrants who, due to their cultural-religious roots, tend to "refuse assimilation." He also suggested that many of these "Third World" immigrants -- read: Muslims -- are inspired by radicalism. In 2009, Le Pen asserted that immigrants and their children perpetrate 90 percent of crimes in France. (French law bans the gathering of statistics related to racial or ethnic backgrounds, so he was making a random -- and outlandish -- guess.) And let's not forget Le Pen's most infamous comment -- that the gas chambers of World War II were a "tiny detail" of history.
Weinstein certainly had a lot to work with here. So when The Intouchables premiered at New York City's Lincoln Center this month, Weinstein released a statement not only attacking the old Frenchman's interpretation of the film, but also Le Pen's politics and his daughter popularity. (She currently polls a strong third place in her quest for the French presidency.)
"It's not a surprise to hear such an intolerant statement from the man who founded and was president of the extreme-right, xenophobic, racist National Front party," Weinstein said in a statement. "Le Pen made a repulsive statement, representing a bigoted world view. And right now, Jean-Marie's daughter, Marine Le Pen, is running for president of France as the leader of the National Front party … with almost 16% of the population intending to vote for her. That's frightening to me, and I think it's important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas."
If American filmgoers even know of Le Pen, few are likely to side with the xenophobic French nationalist whose views are shaped by France's lost grandeur. Weinstein's real point is that his film can't possibly be racist if France's most notorious living racist actually sees it as a disturbing plaidoyer for people to come together across racial, ethnic, religious, and class differences.
It is the sort of confrontation that high-level electoral-campaign strategists labor to orchestrate. The strategy involves boosting the most offensive or despicable critic of your client (to the detriment of more potentially credible ones) and then asking who wants to align with the devil, so to speak. Intouchable, untouchable -- you get the point.