Last night I watched The Intouchables, the biggest box office hit of 2011 in France and the 2nd most successful French movie ever after Welcome to the Sticks.
It is based on the true story of an unlikely friendship between a wheelchair bound millionaire and the young African immigrant who takes on a job as his nurse/ carer.
The film begins with the scene of a Maserati speeding through a Parisian road. The car is being driven by a young black man, with an older, somewhat disheveled man in the seat beside him. The subsequent, rather humorous sequence of events which coincides with the opening titles and Earth, Wind and Fire’s September playing in the background, establishes the close camaraderie between the two men.
The rest of the movie is a flashback to the start of their relationship.
Veteran French character actor Francois Cluzet (who brilliantly played a stressed out restaurateur in 2010’s critical and commercial hit Le Petits Mouchoirs) plays the role of Philippe, a multi-millionaire who is left a cripple following a para-gliding accident. He lives in a large town house in the heart of Paris.
The character of the African immigrant Driss is played by 34 year old Omar Sy, one half of the popular comedy duo Omar and Fred who appear regularly on French TV and Radio. Omar Sy beat out Oscar winner Jean Dujardin from The Artist to win this year’s Cesar Award for Best Actor for this role in The Intouchables.
The flashback tells us the story of how Philippe and his personal assistant are conducting interviews to hire a carer for him (the nature of his paralysis means that no carer is able to last more than a few weeks on the job). Driss, who has just completed a 6 month jail sentence appears for the interview with absolutely no expectation of getting the job (he is just going through the motions so that he can qualify for an unemployment benefit), but his carefree and open attitude clicks with Philippe and he is given a 2 week trial period.
What follows is an amusing and insightful series of interactions between Driss and Philippe as well as various members of Philippe’s household – a teenage daughter, his attractive personal assistant and the charming and gracious housekeeper played by the wonderfully expressive Anne Le Ny.
What I loved about this movie is its effortless and uncomplicated storytelling. This does not aspire to be a work of art, but rather a straightforward and heart warming story of how two people from such different backgrounds can find a common ground for friendship. The millionaire introduces the man from the projects to some elements of the high life – classical music, art and the opera. On the other hand, Driss brings is able to break situations down to the basics and helps Philippe deal with some of the complications in his affluent but restricted life. It was also refreshing to watch a film that doesn’t have any really bad people in it.
One of the situations deals with a correspondence-based relationship that Philippe has developed with a woman he has never met. Philippe uses these letters (which he dictates to his assistant) as a way for him to stay emotionally connected with people, without the complications of a physical relationship, which is now virtually impossible for him to have. Driss encourages Philippe to set up a meeting with his ‘pen pal’, which Philippe is reluctant to do, given that he has never revealed the fact of his physical disability to her. Eventually the meeting is set up, but Philippe loses his nerve at the last minute and leaves. before her arrival.
It is obvious that Driss is unlikely to spend the rest of his life in the role of a home nurse for a rich middle aged man. Eventually, Driss’ own family circumstances require him to return to his home in the projects and take up a ‘regular’ job. Philippe is unable to build the same bond with Driss’ replacements and allows himself to sink into depression. This is when the housekeeper asks Driss to pay Philippe a visit and they go out for a night time drive in the Maserati…the opening scene in the film.
After this scene, Driss drives Philippe through the night and they check into a hotel in a small town, where there is a surprise waiting for Philippe, which I won’t spoil. It’s a wonderful moment and Francois Cluzet manages to take Philippe’s character through a range of emotions over a few seconds, as Driss walks away smiling.
The credits at the end tell us that the individuals on whom this story is based are friends to this day and there is a brief clip of the two men as they are today.
For all its commercial success (or perhaps because of it), there are many who feel that The Intouchables is cliched, escapist fare. As for me, I didn’t bother too much with such analysis. I just put the movie on and I enjoyed watching it. What does bother me is the fact that the Weinsteins have bought the rights for a remake, which may not necessarily have the spontaneity and elegance of the original.