You'd never know it, but the highest-grossing film in Europe last year had nothing to do with super heroes, or sequels, or Hollywood itself. A small French film with the strange title of The Intouchables manages to break down just about every European box-office record last fall, sweeping across the continent and winning over hearts of numerous nationalities. The Weinstein Company bought the English-language adaptation rights, but before that gets underway they're also releasing the original French movie to American audiences. Will subtitle-averse American audiences warm up to the little movie that has proven so hard to resist worldwide?
Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is rich quadriplegic and looking for a new caregiver to his many needs. In walks Driss (Omar Sy), a brash and headstrong man from a very different world: lower class, urban, and black. Philippe responds to the man's irreverence and gumption and hires Driss on a trial basis. The upper-class lifestyle is like a fantasy to Driss, but the many responsibilities of caring for a man with no feeling below the neck are harder than anticipated. He objects at the very idea of having to manually evacuate the man's... insides. The two opposites attract and the men become close friends and open one another up to new experiences.
At its core, The Intouchables is the story of two men and their unlikely friendship. It's told with enough weight, conviction, and character development that it's easy to get wrapped up in the movie's sweeping emotional tide. It's a familiar tale, essentially that of the coming together of two people from distinctly different walks of life. You've seen this type of story before, where the upper class learns to cut loose and embrace life more fully, where the lower-class individual finds a path of dignity and responsibility. It's been done before but rarely has it been done with such aplomb. Any storyline that involves a quadriplegic man and an inner city youth coming together sounds rife for after-school moralizing and sappy life-lessons. Thankfully, The Intouchables finds an angle that hits the emotional highpoints without tipping over into overt maudlin territory. Phillippe doesn't want anyone's pity. What is meant as good intentions can become another handicap; public perception of the individual's limitations. Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the 2007 inspirational French film about a significantly paralyzed man who could only move his left eye (what is it about French films and paralysis?), The Intouchables brings you into a world few glimpse and shows us what the perseverance of the human spirit can reap. Even a conversation that steers to sexuality can be illuminating and, for concerned male viewers, comforting that even if you can't feel anything below the neck, the human body can adapt. In this regard, the film is a fascinating look into the life and care of a quadriplegic man (albeit an insanely wealthy one), and the fact that it's also a moving and winning buddy comedy is yet another virtue. It's like France's version of a bromance.
It's quite easy to see why The Intouchables has had runaway success in Europe, totaling over $300 million before ever opening in the States. This thing is a born crowd-pleaser. The characters are given room to roam, flesh out, and the interaction between two different men and their growing affection is a natural emotional foundation. We care about these characters, we smile and laugh with their interactions, the way that both men realize they need the other. It's touching without being cloying and rich with emotional rewards by film's end. Then there's the fact that it's also consistently funny without overplaying the class conflicts. There is an amusing subplot about the nebulous nature of modern art and what qualifies as "art": the work or the knowledge that it's from an "artist." There's a nice payoff with that one, but most of the humor is character-based, with the jovial Driss bouncing off the staid sarcasm of Philippe. There's one comic subplot that seems to be hitting the same note time an again -- Driss' dogged romantic pursuit of Philippe's assistant (Audrey Fleurot). It's almost forgivable given the immense charms of Sy, but her character gets reduced to little more than a potential love match for Driss' energetic libido. The humor, buoyant but also sensible, gives the film a defter touch when it comes to the more dramatic moments of loss and isolation and mourning. It's easy to see why audiences have been falling in love with The Intouchables around the globe; they're programmed to cry and laugh in equal measure.
And it's that vague sense of programming that lingers. This is a film that knows exactly what chords to strike and how often. It can be accused of pandering and you'll be able to guess every point of the plot. You think Driss will get Philippe to finally meet the woman he's corresponding to for months? You think the upper crust will break from their immaculate stuffy prisons and learn to cut loose, spurned from Driss' involvement? Do you think Philippe's bratty teen daughter will learnt to shape up and fly right? Will Driss take a stand and stop his younger sibling from falling under the sway of criminal influences? Will the two men realize they truly need one another's companionship? The answers are obvious; as are the plot turns and the happy ending, but The Intouchables goes about its business with such mass-appeal precision that you don't really mind being manipulated. When someone can pull strings this skillfully, and quite transparently, almost daring the audience to resist, I almost admire the manipulation. Unlike Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, another blatantly manipulative teary adult drama, at least this movie succeeds because we care about the characters rather than just bad things happening to people onscreen. The Intouchables isn't subtle about its aims, but it is hard to resist a film this beguiling and tender and involving.
Sy (Micmacs) is the breakout star of the movie. His gregarious, jubilant charisma instantly engenders the character of Driss to the audience. He's constantly smiling, laughing, and cracking wise, and pushing others to be better. Sy brings such life to the movie that you instantly miss him when he's gone. Cluzet (Tell No One), a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman, has the more restrained role, no pun intended. His performance has to be very controlled yet believable, and Cluzet does an admirable job of building a character from the neck up. He's a wounded man still recovering from the loss of his wife as well as his own crippling fears of loneliness. When these two are together onscreen, that's when all the movie's potential problems become a distant memory. The conviction in their big-hearted performances makes all the sentiment easy to swallow.
Several critics have accused the French film of being borderline racist. I think the charge of racism is overdone. Just because Driss' family lives in low-income housing doesn't mean it's making some blanket statement about the black experience in France. I suppose some chafe at the energetic, outspoken, and general virility of Driss. But I think critics looking for racist depictions of black males are overlooking the point that Driss had to be outspoken and energetic because Philippe is immobile and reticent. It's in service of character contrast, not just recapitulating the figure of Loud Outspoken Black Male (a.k.a. the modern-equivalent of the age-old Noble Savage treatment). The significant part of Driss is that he has a sketchy past and comes from a low-income family struggling to get by. His race certainly plays up the contrast between the world of white privilege in France, but it's not the central difference between these two men. Critics have also brought up the fact that the facts of the true-life story are different than what we see onscreen. Philippe's caregiver, Abdell Sellou, was a Muslim man from Algeria, not a black man from Senegal. Does this truly bother anybody? Does the man's heritage and ethnic background drastically alter the relationships formed or the earnest connections made? The movie doesn't seem to think so and closes with the real-life figures onscreen, showing to each audience member the adaptation differences. Unlike something as racially questionable as The Blind Side, Driss is not rescued by saintly white people; he is an active member in his own self-actualization and not a passive receptor of the benefits of rich white people. With that said, there are still a few moments of ethnic depictions that might make you cringe, like Driss' reaction to a night out at the hoity-toity opera.
During my viewing, I was reminded most of Scent of a Woman, another down-the-middle buddy comedy about a disabled man and his caregiver learning from one another and pushing beyond their comfort levels. It's emotional without being too squishy and funny without going overboard, but make no mistake: The Intouchables is just as formulaic as a Hollywood production. The story and conflicts are familiar, the afflictions and backgrounds only differ. It's feel-good, mass appeal comfort food, and when done this skillfully it's hard to resist its call (I had a similar reaction to last year's The Help). Its story of friendship, personal triumph, and all those happy things, but it's also emotionally manipulative, littered with undeveloped subplots and a few uncomfortable moments of ethnic depictions. Fortunately the shining, vibrant performances from Sy and Cluzet, and their chemistry together, elevate the film's softer and quasi-pandering sensibilities. It's the story of two men, and by the end we greatly care for these two men, and their deep friendship and appreciation of one another. The Intouchables is a sly crowd-pleaser that dares you to defy its mass charms. And with actors this good, resistance is futile.
Nate's Grade: B