Like many American moviegoers, I don’t typically seek out foreign films with subtitles. But hearing how The Intouchables has broken box office records in its native France and across Europe sparked my curiosity.
Directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the film was nominated for a total of nine 2012 César Awards, France’s equivalent to the Oscars, and won Best Actor for Omar Sy.
I was pleased with my decision to check it out, as The Intouchables turned out to be a funny, moving true story of friendship between a handicapped millionaire, Phillippe (Francois Cluzet) and his ex-con caretaker Driss (Sy).
Phillippe, paralyzed from the neck down in a paragliding accident, is interviewing new caretakers when a boisterous young man arrives and bypasses the line of waiting applicants.
Driss claims he has only stopped by so he can get a signed letter stating that he applied and was turned down for a job. This will enable him to get a welfare benefit check from the government. He is told to come back the next morning to get his signature, and upon arrival, he is surprised to be given a tour of the mansion and offered a trial period as Phillippe’s caretaker.
These guys are as different as night and day, but Phillippe insisted he wanted a caretaker that didn’t treat him differently and didn’t offer pity, and Driss turned out to be the right man for the job. One particularly moving scene occurred when Driss gently comforts Phillippe when he wakes up in the middle of the night in extreme pain.
The movie offers plenty of feel-good, funny moments such as Driss’ reaction to the opera, Driss’ preference for R&B music (he’s a big fan of Earth Wind & Fire) over Phillippe’s love of classic music and Driss’ reaction to an expensive piece of art. It was particularly amusing watching them sing along in English to Earth Wind & Fire’s September.
The filmmakers did a good job of getting the audience to root for both of them to succeed in life despite their individual challenges and setbacks. The movie handles the delicate subject of Phillippe’s quadriplegia with grace and humor, walking the fine line of avoiding oversentimentality or shameless attempts to make the audience cry.
Phillippe’s fear and apprehension about meeting the woman he’s been sending poetic letters to for the past six months is particularly heart-tugging.
While it is a bit clichéd and stereotypical (at least from an American perspective) that Driss was fresh out of prison and on welfare, it didn’t particularly affect my enjoyment of the film. One thing of note in this true story is that the filmmakers changed the ethnicity of Driss. The real Driss is named Abdel Sellou (he’s pictured at the end of the movie) and is from the Arab country of Algeria in North Africa, while the movie character hails from Senegal in Western Africa. Casting someone who looked more like Abdel might have helped lessen the stereotype problem.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the story is about the burgeoning friendship between two completely opposite people with very different upbringings. I’ve heard some rumbles of a potential American remake with Colin Firth as the star, but this is definitely worth checking out in its original incarnation. ••
Movie Grade: B+