Intouchables, not be mistaken for the French version of Kevin Costner’s The Untouchables, but a very funny and moving comedy about the friendship between a quadriplegic aristocrat, Philippe (François Cluzet) and his helper, Driss (Omar Sy). Based on a true story, Intouchables sees a young ne’er-do-well who falls into a job as the live-in carer for a wealthy middle-aged Parisian gent. Initially resistant to commit to the work, Driss eventually finds meaning and purpose in helping Philippe rediscover the very same thing about life.
Sy’s Driss is tall, funny, handsome and strong (and should definitely call me to set up his online dating profile), and is the perfect counterpoint to Cluzet’s Phillippe, who eerily resembles Robert De Niro with a beard or Dustin Hoffman without. The story is told mostly from Driss’s point of view, showing not only the two interacting but all the social baggage he brings with him. The rollercoaster of emotions we get from Cluzet’s engaging performance, ranging from the shame and quiet, sizzling anger to the comedic prankster are only magnified by the limitations imposed by the role. But we also see the self-induced numbness Phillippe forces on himself, hiding behind his injury. Through their growing friendship, both men help each other overcome their own individual issues.
An extremely interesting facet of their relationship is Driss acting as the able body to Philippe’s enlightened mind. Writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano expertly explore this dynamic, putting the two leads into many situations where they can complement each other and not without comedic effect. For example, Driss choosing to drive Philippe around in a sports car in place of the adapted mini-van, or giving him marijuana to help alleviate the “ghost pains”. Likewise, Philippe does the inverse for Driss, teaching him to appreciate music and art, and the patience to contend with his troubled younger brother.
The decision to cast Sy as the Senegalese Driss is a controversial one, as the role is originally based on an Algerian man called Abdel Sellou. Perhaps the directors chose him as a means of communicating the racial-social problems presented in Intouchables through a larger minority, but it could also be just how stunning and amazing Sy is in the role that they adapted it especially for him to perform.
In terms of social issues, Intouchables definitely touches on a few: the discussion about the validity of welfare and how one should earn the right to have benefits; the differences between those with and without, primarily using images from Driss’ difficult family life contrasted with the luxurious emptiness of Philippe’s.
Already the most successful French film ever made, Intouchables boasts a collection of broken records and successes in its tracks. In the middle of the mantlepiece lies the fact that it is the highest-grossing film in a foreign language of all time. Not only that, but do you remember a certain Jean Dujardin of The Artist fame? Sy’s performance in Intouchables led to a French César Award for Best Actor win over said compatriot, becoming the first black actor to do so in the ceremony’s history. With an eye out for Oscar season be sure to see it up there for Best Foreign Film, perhaps even a nomination for Sy for Best Actor.
Some might naturally be dissuaded from seeing Intouchables due to it being a foreign film and having to read those subtitles in a darkened screening room, but please, don’t be deterred. It’s a heartwarming comedy that deserves as much success here as it has seen in France. Make the effort, read those subtitles and prepare your excuses for those tears that will come, either from laughter or pure, unadulterated something-in-my-eye.