Dear Friends: The French Surprise Hit Intouchables, or a Unique and Charming Plea for Respect and Tolerance

Driss (Omar Sy, left) and Philippe (François Cluzet, right) race down the streets of Paris.

A big fuss has been made about Michel Hazanavicius’s French silent film The Artist winning Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards. Yes, it’s an aberration, since a non-Anglo-American movie winning the prestigious trophy usually only happens once in a blue moon. Roberto Benigni’s Italian Life Is Beautiful tried but failed against James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997. So the success of The Artist came as somewhat of a surprise, although it’s debatable if it was even the best French film of its class because of a little picture by the unknown duo of directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano.

Based on a true story, Intouchables is the story of two men who couldn’t be more different. Philippe (François Cluzet) is a rich and sophisticated quadriplegic living in a Paris mansion. The aristocrat looks for a new full-time attendant to help him cope with everyday life. As it happens, the hoodlum Driss (Omar Sy) is sent to his place by the unemployment agency. The kid from the projects doesn’t really want the job. All he cares about is getting a written confirmation that he showed up but wasn’t up to the task. For reasons completely incomprehensible to everyone around him, Philippe takes a fancy to the cheeky young man and hires him. This fateful decision will change his life forever – and for the better.

Intouchables is both a comedy and a drama. The movie’s jokes range from easy-going to deeply profound ones, but without ever becoming offensive. The filmmakers treat their characters with respect, even though there would be enough opportunities to handle the tale of, to put it more bluntly, ‘the black and the cripple’ politically incorrect. But Intouchables is first and foremost about humanity and tolerance. It shows that friendships aren’t about color, creed, wealth, or ancestry, because Philippe and Driss forge a tight bond, despite the fact that they come from entirely different planets. Both of them, however, have experienced their fair share of misery, so that they can relate to each other in a way no-one else can.

The intellectual Philippe is a widower who became a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident around the same time he lost his beloved wife. Since then, he has been haunted by the thoughts of her that plague him more than his paralysis ever could. Although full of joie de vivre, the model athlete Driss came to France from Africa, only to grow up in the shantytowns of Paris and get into trouble with the law. Each needs the other for more than a simple boss-and-employee relationship. Philippe hails from a world of wealth and social security that Driss has never seen before, yet the rich man has all but lost the will to live.

Driss, on the other hand, seems to possess magical revitalizing powers when it comes to the quadriplegic. He is very unconventional in the way he approaches his job. The youngster makes Philippe smoke weed, get Thai massages, takes him out on nightly walks and car races, and even forces the aristocrat to finally meet with his longtime female pen pal. Everybody suddenly seems to like Driss – be it Yvonne (Anne Le Ny), the housekeeper, or Philippe’s rebellious adoptive daughter Elisa (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi), who finally warms to her dad’s new attendant after an initial proverbial ice age when Driss punishes her boyfriend Bastien (François Caron) for treating her badly. The only one not to fall for him is Philippe’s assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), whom Driss constantly tries to bewitch with his charms.

Intouchables is unlike any other film in recent years in that it is a tragicomedy that deals with a challenging topic without ever losing its humor or turning its characters into mere caricatures the audience can’t take any seriously. The keyword is ‘respect.’ Philippe and Driss hold each other in gradually higher esteem as the movie progresses. The aristocrat even manages to bring his carer’s hidden talents to light, while the youngster finds out that the old man isn’t such a bad guy, that Philippe is actually a lonely, troubled soul who once used to be a real daredevil and misses the excitement he once had. This is all the more remarkable when you take into consideration that the film is based on the true story of one Philippe Pozzo Di Borgo, who became a quadriplegic in 1993 and had to rely on Abdel Sellou as his assistant.

All these elements make Intouchables a fantastic heartwarming piece of work with great acting – particularly by Cluzet and Sy, but also by the remaining members of the cast – and directing. Shot at a modest budget, it shows the more expensive Hollywood blockbusters where the rubber meets the road and that French cinema is still a force to be reckoned with even decades after the heydays of the Jean Renoirs, Jean Cocteaus, Louis Malles, Jean-Luc Godards, François Truffauts, Robert Bressons, or Alain Resnais’. The only other director from the country – other than this year’s Academy Award winner – to have come close in terms of popularity is probably Dany Boon of Welcome To The Sticks and Nothing To Declare fame, but Intouchables is still on a different level than those two hit comedies.

Hazanavicius and The Artist may have received the bulk of the acclaim stateside, but shame on the Academy for neglecting this brilliant little flick. Having largely flown under the radar, Intouchablescertainly would have been deserving of an Oscar or two – or at least a nomination as Best Foreign Language Film. The movie has been a huge success in Europe especially, with a gross of more than $350 million so far. It’s no wonder that American studios feel attracted to such a hit. In the light of Hollywood’s current remake and reboot mania, rumor has it that one of the majors has already purchased the rights to shoot a new English-language take on Intouchables. Safe to say, it will be different to even come close to the original. Let’s just hope it won’t be a complete disaster, given the brilliance of the French version.

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