Philippe: François Cluzet
Driss: Omar Sy
Directors: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
French release: 2011; US release: 2012 Caesar Award (French Oscar equivalent): Best Actor- Omar Sy
I am reviewing Intouchables as part of a series of review of French films for the France of Film Blogathon on Serendipitious Anachronisms January 8 and 9, 2016. I hope you check out the entire series; several great French films and films set in France are lined up for review.
Intouchables is set in Paris, but Paris does not become a “character” in the film. Location takes on significance in light of the 2005 Paris riots, in which socioeconomic disparity played such a role. In view of this, it is easy to see how a film with the uplifting spirit of Intouchables came to be France’s number 1 picture of 2011, as well as a hit throughout Europe. As an American viewer, I can also understand why American viewers did not identify with the film as well. In the US, drama more often than not becomes grim melodrama, and comedy veers toward slapstick. We are accustomed to seeing characters like these as simple stereotypes and lighthearted films without significance or lasting meaning; however, Intouchables subverts expectations.
Intouchables opens with Driss tearing through the streets of Paris in a Maserati, Philippe in the passenger seat, the dialog indicating they are doing this on a bet, immediately giving viewers a glimpse of the pair’s relationship. They are soon stopped by the police, and when Driss explains that Philippe is “having a fit,” (he isn’t), the police give them a high speed escort to the ER. Driss wins the bet. After they arrive at the ER and lose their police escort, Philippe miraculously recovers from his “fit,” and the duo drive off. This is how we are introduced to characters who are immediately likable–even when breaking the law.
This opening scene seems to be telling viewers this is a “buddy” picture, possibly with caper involvement. While there are elements of both, Intouchables transcends those simplistic terms to become a meaningful film about friendship. Fortunately, Intouchables escapes such syrupy sentimentality. Although the formula is one viewers will recognize, the élan with which it is treated here makes Intouchables a joy to watch. The superb performances by Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet elevate the film from silly melodrama to real drama. Cluzet is amazing at portraying a full range of reactions with only his voice, facial expressions, and movements of his head. As Driss, Sy conveys a joie de vivre that is contagious, not only to Philippe, but the audience. Moments of delight and comedy are juxtaposed with deep pain.
After the opening scene, viewers go to flashback for the next 90 minutes and find out how they became friends. Driss needs a signature on his unemployment form and has no intention of working when he crashes the job interview to be paraplegic Philippe’s new caretaker. To his surprise, when he returns the next day “for his form,” he is given a tour of Philippe’s palatial home and offered the job, somewhat in the guise of a dare. This sets the tone for the relationship, the two men constantly challenging each other to reject expectations. Each is in his own way “intouchable,” rejected by society. Philippe is surrounded by people afraid to make a genuine connection with him. Driss barely has room to move in the apartment he shares with his family, but still lives a lonely life. Philippe is the overlooked, often-patronized handicapped; Driss is the ignored poor: two classes society prefers to patronize rather than genuinely care about. When a friend questions Philippe’s decision to hire Driss, he explains he’s tired of being pitied. He likes that Driss, “often forgets and hands [him] the phone.”
In spite of a seeming focus on Philippe, Driss is the protagonist of this film because he is the one who changes the most. When the audience first meets Driss, he is a parolee, directionless, without hope or ambition for a better life. Philippe, on the other hand, was reaching for improvement, but without success. In an inspired moment of desperation, he hires Driss who embodies the opposite of every other caretaker he had ever had. Although the movie doesn’t dwell on the lifestyle differences or backgrounds of either character, it does take advantage to create some fun moments such as when Driss makes Philippe listen to pop music and when Philippe makes Driss take him to an opera. The director’s reticence in this respect kept this film from making a mockery of the the main characters. He used the differences of the characters to highlight the fact that neither man judges the other. Philippe never sets out to bring “culture” into Driss’s life; Driss changes simply from the exposure to Philippe’s world. After being shocked at the price paid for an abstract painting, Driss decides (like so many of us), “I can do that.” As he paints, he begins to care, not about the potential money, but about the artistic process.
Above all, this movie is about how friendship bridges gaps– in this case, between two people from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. By the end of the film, Driss is applying for a new job, while discussing Dali and poetry with his interviewer, this time for a job he wants and gets. He is flirting with a girl who reciprocates his interest. He is no longer an unwanted Senegalese boy, but a young man who fits into Paris society.
As American viewers watching Intouchables, I could not help imagining how an American studio would have treated the same story. Seeing an aristocratic White man soon to be cared for by a Black man from the wrong side of the tracks, the “Magical Negro” trope would have dominated the film. The curmudgeonly invalid would learn to accept his lot in life under the guidance of his street-wise, yet spiritual, companion. The two characters would descend into caricature. I saw many negative reviews of this film from American critics, and I believe it is because they did not understand the understated touch that Nakache and Toledano applied here. Some criticized it a racist, some for treating a serious subject too lightly. The film I watched was a lovely picture of how true friendship can change a person: nothing more, nothing less.