With worldwide hits such as Untouchable and Rust and Bone, French cinema is changing the way disabled people are portrayed on screen
This year’s Paralympics in London did an extraordinary amount to change attitudes to disabled people. But cinema has been doing its bit too.
In March, Untouchable, the story of the relationship between a quadriplegic and his carer, became the highest-grossing film ever in a language other than English. It’s now taken nearly £250m on a production budget of £7m, topping the box office charts in countries ranging from Switzerland and Spain to Germany and South Korea. It has also been selected as the French entry for the foreign-language Oscar.
A hot competitor for that honour was Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard plays a double amputee. The film is still performing healthily in Britain’s arthouses after winning the top prize at the London film festival.
The point about these films is not that they feature disabled protagonists, but the way the films treat the characters. Untouchable centres on the parallels between an able-bodied but socially disadvantaged carer and his disabled charge. Their shared sense of exclusion renders their physical disparity immaterial. In Rust and Bone, disability liberates rather than confines – Cotillard’s character becomes fully human only when she loses her legs.
It hasn’t always been like this. Movies have tended to show disabled people as objects of pity or even comedy, a different breed whose condition subjects them to isolation. Of course, such otherness was simply reflecting the social attitudes of the time, and these began to change during the 1960s and 70s when mainstream society became more inclusive. Cinema – literally shaping the way its subjects were viewed – had the power to advance this process.
But cinema was slow to change its ways. In a book published as recently as 2003, Paul Longmore, polio victim and disability activist, identified a series of persistent stereotypes. There were the deformed bodies, such as Dr Strangelove or Dr No, that reflected a deformed soul. There were the mutants of horror films, sometimes lusting grotesquely after “normal” women, such as the Nazi dwarf in The Black Bird. There were pitiable victims of bigotry – but often even they developed attitudes so warped that they remained outside society. In The Elephant Man and Whose Life Is It Anyway?, suicide has to be the solution. “Better dead than disabled”, as Longmore put it.
Such representations, according to Longmore, reinforced the notion that disability was a divine punishment and that disabled people are a threat: they’re either out of control or, embittered by their fate, eager to avenge themselves on the able-bodied. As such, they’re a nuisance and best separated from normal society.
Actually, things haven’t been quite as bad as Longmore painted them. Cinema has often been compassionate. And yet Hollywood has kept its distance, favouring conditions such as blindness, deafness and discreet mental illnesses which exhibit no outward sign of deformity, though good-looking wheelchair users have proved acceptable. Glamorous stars who render sensitive portrayals of disability are rewarded with Oscar prospects – so long as they haven’t gone “full retard”, as Ben Stiller put it in Tropic Thunder.
Thus, the likes of Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, Iris and Away from Her, An Affair to Remember, The Bone Collector, A Beautiful Mind, Shine, Wait Until Dark and Children of a Lesser God have often sentimentalised, frequently misinformed and at best encouraged filmgoers to sympathise rather than empathise. Hollywood believed audiences would be repelled by disability; the whole area was assumed to be off-putting, acceptable only if accompanied by a stiff dose of treacle.
Filmgoers themselves were not asked what they thought, until 2008 when the BFI and UKFC commissioned a survey of British attitudes to cinema. One of its many surprising findings was that 40% of respondents thought there were too few films featuring disabled people.
Still, Europe has always been a bit bolder on this front than the US. It was Britain and Ireland that gave us perhaps the most striking film about disability, My Left Foot. France delivered The Diving Bell and the Butterfly after Universal withdrew from the project. Now the French have come up with their two world-beaters, though apparently one potential investor in Untouchable did nervously ask if the protagonist, though paralysed from the neck down, could possibly “walk a little bit”.
Still, if Hollywood isn’t always brave, it recognises hotness when it sees it. Producer Harvey Weinstein grabbed the rights to an English-language remake of Untouchable before the film had even been completed. There have been other signs that Tinseltown is getting with the programme. In James Cameron’s Avatar, Jake Sully is a paralysed former marine who leads a revolution using advanced technology. This chimes with a new public image for disabled people – fostered by the blade-runners of the London Paralympics – as pioneers of cyber-enhancement.
Perhaps more significantly, disability is now visible on the big screen, just as it is in real life. In X-Men: First Class, Charles Xavier’s paralysis is demystified by being attributed to a gunshot wound; he becomes a superhero who just happens to be wheelchair-bound. How to Train Your Dragon’s warrior coach, Gobber the Belch, lost two limbs to one of his antagonists. He parades an array of bizarre prosthetic devices to replace his missing arm, but no one seems to have feared that this might scare the kids.
Joining Untouchable in next year’s Oscar race is Sundance darling The Sessions, whose star John Hawkes is fancied for best actor. Hawkes plays a real-life Boston poet crippled by polio who spends most of his time in an iron lung. Witty and devoid of self-pity, he decides to lose his virginity at the age of 38. Helen Hunt, playing the sex surrogate who obliges him, could well get a supporting actress nomination.
So perhaps things are changing at last. If so, it’s not before time.