One of my favorite sociology publications, Contexts, has this nice short article detailing why The Artist was so successful in the US and collected Academy Awards. It mentions a couple of reasons but leaves out others or wrongly dismisses them, I think.
The first obvious reasons is that it is not strictly a French film: there is no French language spoken as it is a silent film (with old-fashioned title cards in English) and all Dujardin has to say at the end is ‘with pleasure’, not enough to notice his French accent. In addition, the setting of the film is Hollywood at the end of the silent movie era and the beginning of the talkies. It is an American story that most American movie goers know (the downfall of the silent era stars and the rise of new studio stars).
The narrative itself follows typical Hollywood-produced drama / romantic comedies, which is why Diane Barthel-Bouchier is too quick to dismiss the predictable plot (predictable precisely because it it molded the Hollywood fashion), the sappy ending (which I discussed just yesterday) and the cute dog. American audiences love that stuff.
On top of it, any lover of classical Hollywood films can follow along the many, many references to classics throughout the film. I should re-watch it and make a bingo card of it.
Add to that the storyline of the young woman climbing up the success ladder thanks to her own talent and determination which will ultimately save the Dujardin character later on when he stops feeling sorry for himself and getting nostalgic about the bygone era and embrace youth and the new cinema being made. That is also an American, individualistic narrative.
And, let us not forget that the movie is in black and white which gives it a classy cachet that makes us all feel smarter about the whole thing, making it look more sophisticated than the story really warrants. More than that, the film does not rock the boat. There is really no claim it makes except for being a cute love story using old-fashioned stylistic codes and loudly using nostalgic tropes from the constant references to classics to the Max Steiner-type soundtrack.
In other words, the film does not demand anything from its audiences, except to adjust to the silent part, which, as the article notes, is probably better than to subject audiences to French and sub-titles.
In that respect, I would have expected Intouchables to get wider distribution but I can also see why it’s not going to happen beyond art and independent theaters. No amount of subtitles can do justice to a very wordy movie, with a lot of slang. On the other hand, it has everything American audiences would love: a story of friendship transcending race and class, with a solid background of hegemonic masculinity (which I thoroughly addressed here) that is so well accepted as a given and a source of jokes. But that is another movie that does not rock the boat, no more than La Vie en Rose did, or even A Very Long Engagement or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
One (AKA, me) has to wait for the more critical movies on cable and on demand or Netflix. They usually do not make it to the theaters here in the US.
Again, I think the key here is a narrative that does not rock the boat, more than anything else.
Let me remind you all that Despicable Me is a French film.