Grab bag though it inevitably is, the French Film Festival can usually be relied on to showcase certain dependable genres: a smattering of feel-good comedies, with major French stars old and new, as well as the requisite policiers.
This year’s opening night film split the difference, functioning both as a social drama and uplifting dramedy. Premiering originally at Cannes last year, The Extraordinary is the story of two men (played by Vincent Cassel and Reda Kateb) working with autistic teenagers and young adults in Paris. The film’s directors, Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, had a monster hit with 2011’s The Intouchables, and their enjoyably tart wedding planner farce C’est la vie! played at the festival two years ago. They are good with ensembles, and the pair’s latest recalls their 2006 feature Those Happy Days, a comedy about the relationships between guardians and their charges at a summer camp. What’s different is the tone: more forthright than fizzy, although the directors’ crowd-pleasing instincts haven’t deserted them entirely.
The Extraordinary is based on a real-life odd couple, Stéphane Benhamou and Daoud Tatou; the subjects of a TV documentary made by the filmmakers a few years ago. Their immersion in that world is obvious as Bruno (Cassel) and Malik (Kateb) collide with hospital staff, government officials, parents at the end of their tether and the kids themselves. Benhamou’s operation functioned for years without official authorisation, catering to severe cases that had been turned down by other facilities, and Toledano and Nakache have used a 2017 inquiry by the state as a device to tell their story. Two officials interview all the major players, and their responses highlight a system in which those with the most serious behavioural difficulties can also be among the most neglected.
The Victorian government launched a public education campaign around autism last month, aiming to diminish social isolation and discrimination. The unemployment rate for autistic adults in Australia is six times higher than the general unemployment rate, and The Extraordinary dramatises the universal difficulty of obtaining long-term work for those on the spectrum. Joseph (autistic actor Benjamin Lesieur) is doing a trial at a factory repairing washing machines, but his tactile affection for a female colleague discomfits her, and the boss has no choice but to let him go. The film’s local title – it was released as The Specials in other territories – itself speaks to a certain awkwardness in how we approach a disorder in which the range of behaviour is vast.
Lesieur was nominated for a César for this role, and he brings both sweetness and a kind of stolidity to the role. Working with the actor was unpredictable, according to Toledano, with lines changed or replaced willy-nilly, and sometimes for the better. The French crooner Charles Aznavour died while they were shooting (Aznavour by Charles, a documentary that consists of footage the singer shot himself on a Bolex, is also screening at the festival) and that morning Lesieur refused to talk about anything else on set, eventually leading the crew in a rendition of Aznavour’s “La Bohème”.
Joseph’s mother (Hélène Vincent) tells Bruno that people found him cute when he was young but don’t anymore, and she worries about what will happen to him when she’s gone. It’s a common refrain that Toledano knows well. He grew up with an autistic cousin who is now 35 and still cared for by his parents, though they’re over 80. The director’s personal connection to the material might be one reason he wanted to cast people with autism, although he made an exception for one vital role. Valentin wears protective headgear, is prone to lashing out violently and is played by the neurotypical Marco Locatelli – because Toledano and Nakache felt they couldn’t ask an autistic actor to simulate self-harm.
The filmmakers play with dimming and distorting sound to suggest Valentin’s subjective experience, but The Extraordinary is also honest about how little we actually know about what’s going on inside his head. The audience’s relationship to this unknowable character is embodied by Dylan (Bryan Mialoundama), one of several young adults from the projects whom Malik is training as a carer. Resolutely unpunctual, he accompanies Valentin on field trips that get the autistic teenager away from the hospital in which he’s often sedated or restrained, and that sense of responsibility eventually breaks down the sullen indifference Dylan has exhibited from the beginning.
Toledano studied political sociology at the Sorbonne and his interest in enfranchisement is no doubt sincere. But he’s also a savvy commercial filmmaker and the film’s sheer palatability sometimes feels like a weakness as well as a strength. Bruno’s ineptitude on a series of dates is amusing (not least because he’s played by notorious lothario Cassel) and reinforces that he’s wedded to the job, but a romantic subplot between Dylan and a pretty young nurse just feels contrived. The film ends on a note of sunny optimism that’s a little too neat, and the presence of international stars contributes to an impression of Hollywood gloss all the starker for the verisimilitude it overlays.
Whether the film marks an evolution for the filmmakers or is just ersatz – Dardenne brothers karaoke with added sentiment – is an interesting question. C’est la vie! was about the behind-the-scenes workers at a country wedding that inevitably descends into chaos, and it showed Nakache and Toledano to be skilled plate-spinners. They bring the same bubbling anxiety and frenetic energy of that film to this one, though there’s nothing particularly showy about their technique. The camera is handheld when cameras are on the move, and locked off when the same characters have a fleeting moment to themselves. The film ends with Bruno, Malik and even Joseph alone, only it isn’t the end at all. As the credits play the audience is treated to a montage of all the characters and their lives, which, don’t you know it, are just hunky-dory, as well as intertitles telling us that the state investigators eventually realised that these unauthorised facilities are doing necessary work.
But while it’s perched awkwardly between two stools – between telling hard truths and comforting fictions – The Extraordinary still manages to capture something essential, mostly due to the performance of Lesieur as Joseph. It’s fascinating to watch him work alongside Cassel, who clearly never knew what he was going to do next. Capable of tenderness as well as violence, Joseph has a mother who both loves and fears him. She placates him with commercials that he watches again and again because he loves the repetition. Lesieur was similarly obsessive, according to Toledano, listing the names of French musicians and repeating lines of dialogue on a loop. No wonder he took to the monotony of a screen actor’s life like a duck to water.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2020 as "Broad spectrum".
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