As crowd-pleasing as it is irreverent, France’s box-office smash The Intouchables, about a quadriplegic aristocrat and his ex-con caretaker, arrives stateside with an American remake already in the works. Don’t miss this opportunity to see the original, though, as some of the comedy drama’s racier elements are likely to be tamed for audiences sensitive to issues of class, race and disability.
Based on a real-life relationship, this odd couple is composed of Philippe (François Cluzet), a millionaire paralyzed in a paragliding accident, and Driss (César-winning Omar Sy), a street hood by way of Senegal. White, black; rich, poor; immobile and extremely animated—Philippe and Driss are opposite in nearly every way. Their paths would never even cross were it not for the paperwork Driss needs signed to show he’s looking for work in order to qualify for state assistance. Tired of waiting to interview for a job he surely won’t get, he storms into Philippe’s office and slaps the form on his desk. Unable to move from the neck down, Philippe of course can’t fill it out, so he asks Driss to return in the morning. Impressed with Driss’ forthrightness and the fact that he actually comes back the next day, Philippe offers him a job. It’s the best thing to happen to both of them.
Driss initially balks at the baser aspects of his new position, like emptying Philippe’s bowels, and treads inappropriate territory, like asking, “How does sex work?” But Driss brings levity to a very serious household, and Philippe appreciates not being pitied. Soon a fast friendship is formed. The humor and the drama of writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s very funny and very poignant script lie in the clash of their characters’ worlds. While Philippe introduces Driss to the finer things in life—art, music, opera—Driss provides Philippe with pot and prostitutes. The rest of Philippe’s staid and reserved staff wouldn’t dare, but even they see that their boss is living—truly living—once again.
Like their characters, Cluzet, one of France’s most renowned and respected actors, and Sy, a star television comedy writer and performer, inhabit opposite ends of the thespian spectrum, but their pairing is dynamic. Sy’s considerable charisma fills the screen, while Cluzet, competing with just his facial expressions, gives a master class in restraint. They are binary stars orbiting each other: One performance would not exist without the other.
Energetically paced by editor Dorian Rigal-Ansous and scored by Ludovico Einaudi, the immensely enjoyable Intouchables hinges on this central relationship but also broaches social taboos with a politically incorrect wit that flays what’s considered off-limits: socioeconomic disparity, race relations and especially physical disability. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to “go there,” and that they do elevates the sincerely feel-good material to larger cultural relevance.
Directors: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Writers: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Starring: François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet
Release Date: May 25, 2012 (limited)