(2011, France, d. Olivier Nakache and Éric Toleda)
The Intouchables is a very emotional movie, and I tried hard to appreciate it on its own merits, rather than judging it on the socio-economic, racial, and “Hollywood” vision of the world it seemed at times to present. While the film does have its critics for these reasons, I found myself easily able to relate to its main characters and soon enough, swept away by their journey.
The Intouchables tells the true story of Driss (played by Omar Sy) and Philippe (Francois Cluzet). Prior to the film, Philippe, a white aristocrat, suffers horrible injuries from a hang-gliding accident, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. But Philippe has it off a lot better than other tetraplegics – his enormous wealth is still able to provide him a taste of the better life. He obsesses over art, listens to classical music 100 decibels higher than anyone else in the house can bear, and reads ancient literature in his spare time. Of course, spare time is all he has. His house is equipped with a loving staff but he still needs a caretaker to perform basic duties for him – feeding him, bathing him, driving him, pushing him, etc… And that’s where Driss comes in.
Driss is a lawbreaker, we’re lead to assume. He’s just on parole for a robbery he committed and, when we first meet him, is simply presenting his face at an interview so he can collect the employer’s signature to get unemployment benefits. He comes from a large family – though no one he lives with are his siblings or his parents. His aunt, a custodian, is the primary care-giver of the family and Driss feels no shame in living under her paycheck. Until she kicks him out.
Philippe is impressed by Driss’ forward nature. Driss makes jokes other candidates wouldn’t, hitting on Philippe’s secretary in front of him. But unlike any other potential care-giver, Driss never seems to care that Philippe is in a wheel chair. In fact, he makes fun of him for it. And though it comes as a surprise to Driss, he’s offered the job.
Objectively, there’s a lot to critique this film. On the surface, you have another story about a stuck-up white man who’s shown the world by a poor but charismatic black man. Essentially, that is The Intouchables. And historically, middle-class audiences eat that stuff up. Furthermore, this film gives permission to laugh at disabilities – not in a mean way, but in an equalizing one. We do this through Driss, who’s the one poking fun at Philippe all the time. Philippe, being treated like a regular person for the first time since his accident, loves keeping him nearby. And while others would be perfectly in their rights to reject the film on those notes, I urge them not to. Because this film is far better than the sum of its parts. And it all comes down to the performances.
Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet carry this film. Sy’s humor, charisma, and lack of self-control are infectious. Every scene he’s in, he lights up. But despite the outer shell, Driss is hardly perfect. Here’s a man who needs directions – who needs principle. And Sy is able to convey this arc genuinely and naturally. It’s sounds a lot easier than it is. Let’s just say Chris Tucker has some big shoes to fill in the Hollywood remake. Cluzet, a lot like John Hawkes in The Sessions, is able to travel on his emotional arc without the movement of anything south of his neck. And that is exactly how hard as it sounds. But Philippe, in his own way, needs direction as well. To lead a life rather than searching through books, literature, and windows for it.
The two are perfect complements.
Despite its cliches, The Intouchables feels honest. And again, it would be within anyone’s rights to reject this film on its nature alone. But, having seen my fair share of “rich white person helps racial minority helps white person” movies, I can tell you this one is funnier, more touching, and – given its qualities – more subtle.
I may have even teared up at the end.