… opposites attract …
This movie is a delight. The Intouchables is about a hugely rich French man who became paraplegic in an accident and hires against the odds a big Black man originally from Senegal to be his caregiving man — his arms and legs essentially and to take care of him in every way — and the liberation they each bring to each other in their different ways. It’s a comedy, with lots of joyous laughs and continually interesting characters. The photography is stunning, with the contrast between the totally gorgeous rich house, and the child-crammed chaotic apartment in the housing projects of the Paris suburbs where the Black man’s family lives powerfully well described.
The contrasts between the two men are fully drawn: Philippe, in late middle age, is a lover of classical music and literature and an art collector. He’s The Establishment, living in his luxurious, serene mansion filled with a sense of hereditary and current importance — but he’s physically helpless. Far from The Establishment, Driss is a petty thief, Black and poor, with a brutal rupture in his past: as a boy, he was sent by his parents from his home in Senegal to Paris to live with an Aunt and, as the movie begins, Driss’s Aunt, having given up on him, throws the big, muscular, unruly guy out of her apartment.
He only interviews for the position of Philippe’s caregiver because he needs a signature to verify he’s looked for work in order to qualify for his government “benefit”. But in the face of the more apparently qualified candidates who line up for the job, Philippe hires him. Improbable, yet all the more wonderful because we know that this film is based on a true story. Philippe recognizes Driss’s outstanding vitality: not only his exceptional physical strength — the very opposite of his own limp limbs and useless back — but also his originality and emotional daring, a dynamism that was once his own but is now largely sapped by his incapacity.
They have a lot to offer each other. Rambunctious Driss pulls Philippe out of himself, caring for him in the bodily sense, but also driving him to new adventures which Philippe can enjoy with the wonderfully strong surrogate arms and legs of Driss always there to protect him — except for occasional distractions. Philippe has a few adventures to show Driss, too. And Driss, though stricken by an evening of 4 hours ahead of German opera, absorbs a great deal not only about art and literature but about a mode of being in which one can work toward what one wants, and control a measure of ones existence.
And eventually Driss engineers a romantic interest for Philippe — and for the housekeepr Yvonne. In fact, great, big, unangelic Driss is a sort of Cupid in this movie.
Francois Cluzet as Philippe is elegant, sophisticated, and — seeking a way beyond his incapacity — is ready to seize the day: his subtely allows us to understand the suffering his paralysis causes him, and there’s also great appeal in his readiness to enjoy — and all that money has a charisma of its own, which helps him get the girl. Omar Sy as Driss is so big, his physical power, his know-how, his fast learning curve, and fundamental ethical quality inspire so much confidence, that you have to love him just as Philippe does. This down and out ex-con is a man who, it turns out, is truly one who takes good care … of Philippe and others. It’s a funny, unexpected and inspiring character beautifully acted by Sy.
The Intouchables is very much like the movie The King’s Speech. In both, a functional incapacity in someone at the top, Philippe’s paralysis, the King of England’s stutter, catalyzes a meeting with an aide far down the social and economic scale — Driss; George VI’s speech therapist. The unlikely connection, loaded with incongruities ripe for laughter and touching moments, develops into a deep friendship. And all the better in this type of film, neither of these is fiction: both of these profound relationship are based on real life, and, in fact, lasted beyond the time frame of the movie, for the rest of all the characters’ lives.
In this way, both films project a gratifying sense of some fundamental unity of our society, and the resolution of class conflicts — of racial conflict as well in The Intouchables. Both films leave us feeling that we’re all in it together and that our common humanity transcends class, economic disparities, and contrasts in opportunity. It’s a spurious sense of unity — and one of the reasons we go to the movies. You’re filled with a happy glow while applauding the film with every one else in the audience, while leaving the theater, and beyond. No wonder these are both, as The Intouchables describes itself, “crowd pleasers.” And. yes, I still feel the glow.