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The Intouchables

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Even though I had a luxurious abundance of free time in the first few days of 2014, only one film kicked off my new year of movie watching.  I’m glad that the one I chose out of several options was The Intouchables, a 2011 French film by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano.  It’s based on a true story about Philippe Pozzo di Borgo (played by François Cluzet), a French aristocrat who is left quadriplegic after a paragliding accident, and the help that he gets from what others might see as an unlikely source.

Set against the backdrop of a city aglow with streetlights with a serene musical score in the background, the first couple minutes of the film starts tranquilly.  A middle-aged man is slouched in the passenger seat of a car, looking out the window solemnly, and the driver, a younger man, glances over with concern.  I don't mind movies that take their time unfolding their plot, so I wasn't bothered by what seemed like a quiet beginning.  But then, I was suddenly jolted out of the calm, when the film (literally) escalates into high gear.  That juxtaposition is extremely effective, and helped to pull me into the movie even more.  I won’t reveal too much about the next few minutes of the film, but after this opening sequence, we’re set down in an exquisite home reminiscent of Versailles, as the camera pans around and pauses on a side table with a display of Faberge eggs (which, we‘ll later learn, have great significance).  And with that simple camera shot, we basically know everything that we need to about the financial status of the people who live there.

In another nice filming technique that succinctly conveys a point, person after person is being called into a room to go before a young woman, and a man in a wheelchair.  It doesn’t take us long to figure out that they’re there for a job interview, to be the man’s next care provider.  Most of the people applying have all the right, professional pat answers to the questions that they’re being asked, but even though he isn’t able to move below his neck, it’s clear from his facial expressions that the man in the wheelchair, Phillipe, isn’t impressed by any of them.  Then Driss (played by Omar Sy), a swaggering man with a criminal record bursts in, and makes it clear that all he wants is to get a form signed stating that he was passed over for the job, so that he can collect a government benefit.  Viewers recognize him as the young man driving the car from the opening scene, and pieces start to fall into place.

Driss does wind up becoming Phillipe’s care provider, and though Driss quickly realizes that Phillipe’s daily care requires a lot more than he expected, it’s an easy way for him to get off of the streets and start making money.  In a scene that I especially liked, Phillipe is meeting with one of his advisers on a winter day as both men look outside to Driss, waiting for Phillipe, smoking a cigarette, and kicking around snow.  After cluing Phillipe in on Driss‘ criminal record, his advisor warns him: “Be careful.  These street guys have no pity.”   Phillipe replies, “That is it exactly.  That’s what I want.  No pity.”  From here, the storyline follows a path that you might expect: an unlikely friendship is formed, and both men benefit from what the other has to teach him.  It becomes clear that Phillipe’s advisor was right; Driss doesn’t have much pity, but not in the context that the advisor assumed.  Driss obviously has sympathy for Phillipe’s situation, but he pushes him to tap into his pre-accident risk-taking mentality and to go beyond his comfort zone.

The Intouchables could easily spin off into a melodramatic, saccharine commentary on two disparate worlds colliding, but it has more heft than that.  There’s so much humor throughout, and that’s a big plus for me.  Not only are the main characters of Phillipe and Driss funny, but so are many of the others in the film.  Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) and Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), part of Phillipe's household staff, are slightly mischievous and give Driss a run for his money.  I won't elaborate too much and spoil this particular thread of the plot, but this holds especially true for Magalie, as Driss tries what seems to be every trick in his charming repertoire (the amicable end to this little subplot has a great twist).  To keep me laughing even when there's a language barrier and I have to read subtitles to keep up, that’s an accomplishment.  Some things are universally funny and might get a laugh or two, and nuances certainly get lost in translation.  Having consistent humor that keeps a non-native speaker engrossed throughout the movie though, well, that, to me, is a sign of good filmmaking.

Driss and Phillipe at a gallery: "The guy wants thirty grand for a nosebleed?"
I also couldn’t help but be enamored by some of the camera work, especially parts of the film where there are sweeping views of the countryside, and some lovely scenes that bring a touch of beauty to modern, bustling cityscapes.  Everyday urban scenes have been shown thousands of times in film, so it takes talent and a special kind of finesse to be able to present it in a way that viewers' eyes don't just gloss over them without really seeing them.

The real Phillipe and Driss (Yasmin and Pozzo di Borgo)
Is The Intouchables a “feel good” movie? I’d say yes.  Not one that’s simply a lot of fluff though; it has substance, a touch of grit, and enough of a grasp on reality to avoid becoming too cloying.  It has an element of social commentary to it, but maintains enough of a balance to keep viewers from feeling like we're being preached to.  In fact, maintaining balance is something that it does very well.  Like real life, there's a mixture of the beautiful and the tragic, the lows of grief and sorrow and the highs of moments of pure joy.

To find out more, check out the film’s IMDb listing at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1675434

Movie trivia

In real life, Phillipe Pozzo di Borgo hired a young Algerian man from the French projects named Abdel “Driss” Yasmin.  After working with Omar Sy on another project, the directors changed Driss’ character to a Senegalese man for the film, since they had Sy in mind for the role.

After 8.8 million people went to see The Intouchables, it beat out the likes of Skyfall, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and Ice Age: Continental Drift to become the most successful film in Germany in 2012.