The IntouchablesOctober 27, 2012
Although it should be the most depressing subject in the world there is something strangely inspiring about films that deal with disability. The Miracle Worker (1962) was a smash hit in its day, making Helen Keller into the most famous deaf and blind person in history, although she has since been overtaken by several cricket umpires. Even Julian Schnabel, the artist-turned filmmaker who debuted with Basquiat (1996) – a candidate for the coveted ‘Worst Film Ever’ award - had a deserved hit with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), based on the memoirs of paralysed journalist, Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Mark down The Intouchables as a distinguished addition to the list. Like the films previously mentioned, The Intouchables is based on a true story – of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, disabled heir to a wealthy, aristocratic French family, and Abdel Sellou, a rough-edged, small-time criminal.
In the movie, Abdel the Algerian has been transformed into Driss from Senegal. Almost everything else in this unlikely tale is allegedly true.
The role of Philippe is played by Francois Cluzet, who shows that a good actor can do everything from the neck up. Omar Cy puts in a bravura performance as Driss. Although the film has an engaging cast of minor characters it is basically a double act between Cluzet and Cy. More comedy than drama, The Intouchables might be referred to as a ‘buddy film’, albeit one between polar opposites.
Disgusted by the insipid nature of applicants for the post of full-time carer, Philippe chooses Driss, who really only came along to get a signature on his social security form.
His reasoning is that he does not want anyone who pities him.
Driss, who hails from the poor suburbs of Paris where migrant families cluster in ugly apartment blocks, finds himself installed in a luxurious bedroom, enjoying a glimpse of life at the top end of the social spectrum. The comic scenes are inevitable, as two worlds collide.
This has given rise to complaints that the story is predictable and sentimental, but I suspect most viewers will be impressed by the way co-directors, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, have managed to avoid the obvious pitfalls. There is no disguising the fact this is a so-called ‘feel-good’ film, but it is not a simple fiction. While life can be no less predictable and sentimental than art, this does not mean a story has to be overwhelmed by stock situations. The Intouchables has all the components of a mawkish soap opera, but instead it manages to be consistently sharp, funny and touching.
From the beginning, with its high-speed chase in Philippe’s Maserati, Nakache and Toledano show themselves to be masterful story-tellers. The continuity never flags. Like Driss, we have no time or inclination to feel pity for Philippe, who searches for the strength of character to reclaim his life.
In France The Intouchables has been one of the biggest box-office successes of all time. This has not come about solely because the French have been moved by the portrait of a brave, disabled aristocrat and a good-hearted street hood. The film has touched a deeper nerve, with Philippe representing the old French establishment – formal, well-educated, immersed in the worlds of art and literature – and completely helpless. Driss stands for the new France – a culture of immigrants, bristling with energy and hustling for survival. Philippe is the civilising brain, Driss the vigorous body. Each has much to gain from the other. Indeed, neither is complete in itself.
The Intouchables is also a kind of fairy tale, like Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), in which the simpleton, Chance, transforms a wealthy household by his presence and his homespun wisdom. In Nakache and Toldedano’s tale a poor black boy from the wrong side of town finds himself living in a huge mansion, while the ailing rich man has his strength renewed by contact with the lower classes. It would have been a different story had Philippe been living on welfare in a housing estate. In fact it would have been inconceivable.
The success of the story is predicated on the social chasm that separates master and servant. In the opinion of Philippe’s friends and family that gap is too vast to be bridged, and Driss too wild to be tamed. Instead, they meet half-way, with Philippe taking a vicarious pleasure in his carer’s unorthodox behaviour. At a certain point we realise that Driss is no longer an employee but a friend.
One cannot overestimate the power of this movie in a country riven with racial tensions, where the National Front wins votes on a staunch anti-immigration platform. The Intouchables suggests there is a meeting place between the old and new, rich and poor, white and black – a place where two marginalised figures can put aside their differences and become one.
The Intouchables, France, rated M, 112 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 27, 2012