Autism is one word trying to describe a million stories. Hors Normes is one film that tells some of those stories surrounding autism in France.
Hors Normes is neither documentary nor fiction, both comedy and tragedy. Like its characters, Hors Normes doesn’t fit nicely into any category. It is based on a true story about two associations in Paris for teens and young adults on the spectrum with challenging behaviors. The cast is a mixture of well-known performers and non-professionals including a few autistic actors. Several people connected with the movie have autistic family members.
The film’s title is also the thread that ties these stories together. The associations were investigated by special agents of a state agency because they exist outside of the general rules (hors normes) set out by French law. The stories in Hors Normes have a very sobering message about access to services and support in France which autism advocates claim is more than 30 years behind.
From Rain Man to Hors Normes
a cultural view of autism from another time and place
Hors Normes made its debut at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and is currently playing in movie theaters across France, exactly 30 years after Rain Man. This is significant for many reasons. Rain Man was the fruit of a life-long friendship between screenwriter/director Barry Morrow and a man with an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD). The success of his film, Bill, led to a chance encounter with Kim Peek, an autistic adult who served as the inspiration for Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. Hors Normes was born of the relationship between French cinéastes Eric Toledano et Olivier Nakache with the two men, Stephane Benhamou and Daoud Tatou, who founded the associations that inspired this film. Toledano-Nakache are well known for their critically acclaimed, box-office sensation Intouchable about a quadriplegic man and his caretaker.
A majority of the world’s population became aware of autism thanks to Rain Man. Vincent Cassel, the French actor who plays the main character in Hors Normes, said in an interview that Rain Man was the only thing he knew about autism. Really?! He never heard of Sandrine Bonnaire, the famous French actress? She directed an award winning documentary about her sister’s struggles with autism just 10 years ago in Her Name Is Sabine. To his credit though, he and his co-star Reda Kateb prepared for their roles by shadowing direct support staff that accompany the individuals shown in this movie. However, based on his promotional interviews, one might think he didn’t learn much as he tends to perpetuate the false view that there are two kinds of autism, one portrayed by the “savant” Raymond Babbit and those who are “incapable of learning.” In fact, autism is a spectrum condition and all autistics are capable of learning given the right support and access to education. It is interesting to note that Joseph in Hors Normes shares an affinity for washing machines with Raymond.
The French autism community is divided on this film. This is at least one aspect where France is not behind. The American autism community is divided over Sesame Street (I can hear Elmo saying “Oh no! Elmo didn’t want that.”) Some autism associations in France are pleased that the famous filmmakers want to bring autism to the attention of a wider audience, particularly the plight of the disadvantaged that “nobody wants”. Autism self-advocates from CLEA voiced legitimate concerns that the film shows a lack of understanding about the types of support needed. They fear that French audiences might perceive that placement in state-run institutions is acceptable. Sandrine Bonnaire’s documentary painfully yet honestly showed her sister’s decline after being placed in a segregated medicalised setting. She became a high profile advocate hoping to bring about change. There has been some progress and the current French government has a strategy based on inclusion. Nonetheless, the medical strong arm of the government is still expanding French residential facilities trying to cram in more autistic individuals while California, for example, recently closed its last state-run institution. Lest you think that the grass is greener on the other side of the Atlantic, read congressional testimony on the direct care crisis in the U.S. It is also worth noting that the brothers in Rain Man come from a very wealthy family. France has one of the most advanced universal health care systems in the world.
Don’t kill the messenger
French cinema is an art form (le 7ème Art) that tells stories with moving images and sounds. If the filmmakers had “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, and modified” it would be a product ready for consumption. This is art as activism. Spectators are alerted to the situation as it is and may choose to take action. Yes, there are flaws but it is an authentic portrayal and very humaine. I’ll take compassion over indifference any day.
Hors Normes brings to light that autism awareness, acceptance and inclusion is sadly lacking in a country that prides itself on human rights. Offer support, not judgement.