'The Specials' ('Hors normes'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Not special enough.

Vincent Cassel and Reda Kateb headline the latest feature from French filmmaking duo Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache ('Intouchables'), which closed this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Two associations, one run by a Muslim and the other by a Jew, look after marginalized people, such as those with severe autism who have been rejected by the French system, in The Specials (Hors normes), a genre mishmash that’s as awkward as its name. Based on that one-sentence plot description, it would be hard to guess that this mainstream downer was directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the duo behind several hit comedies, including the box-office monster Intouchables and the hilarious 2017 Toronto International Film Festival closing film C’est la Vie. Their latest offering is more along the lines of their 2014 disappointment Samba, with Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which tried — and largely failed — to fuse an immigration drama and romantic comedy tropes.  

The Specials, which was the closing film — or “last screening” as it has been mysteriously re-baptized — at the recent Cannes Film Festival, does benefit from the local star power of Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) and Reda Kateb (Django). Combined with the true-story angle and the brand value of Toledano and Nakache, this should ensure a decent opening when the film goes out locally Oct. 23. But offshore, the pic is unlikely to travel much beyond French Film Week-type festivals and indiscriminate VOD outlets. 

Bruno (Cassel), a character inspired by Stephane Benhamou, runs a shelter of sorts for severely autistic people, most of them youngsters their parents have a hard time looking after because their behavior is frequently violent and unpredictable. The practicing Jew, who sports a yarmulke when not wearing his baseball cap, is friends with Malik (Kateb), the fictional counterpart of Daoud Tatou, whose association works on education and professional (re)insertion for youngsters from rough backgrounds. The two men sometimes pair up their charges, such as when the nearly adult Dylan (Bryan Mialoundama) is asked to look after the preteen Valentin (Marco Locatelli), whose fits can be so forceful that he has to wear protective headgear to keep him from injuring himself. 

The screenplay, written by Toledano and Nakache, quickly paints a picture of two men dedicated to their respective causes. The directors underline the duo’s friendship and desire to do good much more than their different religious backgrounds (Malik especially seems more of a Muslim in name than in practice). Medical professionals such as Dr. Ronssin (Catherine Mouchet) regularly rely on associations like Bruno’s to place people that can’t be placed anywhere else, as a lot of institutions refuse to take patients who are too violent and who cannot be controlled, effectively leaving them either with their parents or on the street. 

The fact that the French system thus effectively refuses to help some people with severe problems is clearly something the filmmakers feel strongly about and want to bring to the attention of a wider audience. But this particular desire sometimes gets in the way of telling a story that plays to their strengths, as the general tenor and message of the film are downbeat, whereas Toledano and Nakache’s forte is light comedy more than social-issue drama. (This was also what made Samba feel like an unwieldy mix.) There also isn’t really a proper balance between Malik and Bruno, with Bruno getting more screen time and more of a private life, even though the directors turn the fact that Bruno’s work keeps interrupting his (blind) dates into an amusing running gag. 

But this imbalance isn’t the pic’s biggest issue, as that dubious honor goes to the subplot involving the inspectors (Frederic Pierrot, Suliane Brahim) who work for the state agency IGAS (L’Inspection generale des affaires sociales). The two are investigating Bruno’s association because it exists outside of the general rules set out by French law, which isn’t all that surprising since Bruno is specifically trying to offer a helping hand where the French institutions fall short. The inspector characters, however, are didactic caricatures that aren’t really used for any humorous purpose and it is grating to see them reduced to simplistic villains. Their storyline is meant to generate sympathy for the underdogs Bruno and Malik, who want to help those the system itself refuses to help. But the lack of any nuance in their characters makes it very hard to take them seriously as more than just mouthpieces for the rigidly opposing view.

Acting, at least, is solid from the ensemble cast, which is a mixture of professionals and non-professionals and which includes a few people with autism as well. And from top to bottom, the film is professionally assembled, even managing to infuse a little gloss into otherwise pretty gritty surroundings. As in all of the directors’ films, music plays a major role and the percussion-heavy score at least keeps things moving forward. There are, of course, a few impressive montage sequences, including one that smoothly goes back and forth between Valentin as he is goaded into touching a horse and Joseph (Benjamin Lesieur), one of Bruno’s other charges with severe autism, who has to try and take the metro alone without giving in to his desire to set off the alarm. It’s a classic feel-good interlude in a film that has a very sobering message about access to care in a supposedly egalitarian country like France.

Production companies: Quad, Ten Cinema, Gaumont, TF1 Films Production, Belga Productions, 120 Films
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Reda Kateb, Helene Vincent, Bryan Mialoundama, Alban Ivanov, Benjamin Lesieur, Marco Locatelli, Catherine Mouchet
Writer-directors: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache
Producer: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky
Director of photography: Antoine Sanier
Production designer: Julia Lemaire
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Dorian Rigal-Ansous
Casting: Justine Leocadie, Elodie Demey, Marie-France Michel
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Last Screening)
Sales: Gaumont

In French
114 minutes