Though a considerable box office success in France, The Intouchables (2011)—a dramatic comedy about a wealthy, white quadriplegic who bonds with his poor, black caregiver—inspired an impassioned cultural backlash. Left-wing commentators accused writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano of peddling a simplified vision of French race relations to flatter white viewers. The film seriously downplayed France’s ongoing problems with race, argued the anti-Intouchables crowd; for them, the movie was no feel-good entertainment but an act of denial. Samba, the latest film by Nakache and Toledano, is another dramatic comedy about French race relations, even less plausible than The Intouchables, that chronicles the blooming romance between a white, middle-class woman and a working-poor Senegalese immigrant. I was moved by Samba despite its falsity; the leads are so charismatic and the optimistic message so sincere that I accepted the movie on its own terms.
Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a white-collar worker on hiatus from her job, uses her free time to volunteer with a Paris immigration office. Samba (Omar Sy), a dishwasher at a fancy hotel, is at risk of being deported even though he’s worked in France for a decade. The two meet cute at a detainment center, where the young lawyer Alice is assisting meets with Samba to take his case. When the lawyer leaves the room, Alice and Samba flirt, and she gives him her phone number. The lawyer manages to get Samba out of detention, but the immigrant can’t get his old job back. In between working odd jobs (each of which he loses due to some stroke of bad luck, as Chaplin does in Modern Times), Samba gets to know Alice, and their friendship deepens into love.
What unites these two characters, the filmmakers suggest, is that both live for their jobs. Samba works so he can send money to his mother back in Senegal; Alice is simply a workaholic. Late in the movie Nakache and Toledano reveal that she took a hiatus from her job because she had a mental breakdown triggered by working too hard. Though Samba doesn’t have the luxury of taking a hiatus, he sympathizes with Alice, and the two bond over their difficult working situations. This aspect of the film strains credulity; work-induced stress, no matter how severe, seems trivial compared to the prospect of being deported. Yet Gainsbourg and Sy play off each other wonderfully, emphasizing how these characters relate to each other as people; their scenes together feel emotionally honest even though one can barely imagine them happening in real life. v