France released two movies in 2012 with similar stories of people with extreme handicaps who find happiness from unlikely companions. One was Rust and Bone, with Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer who loses her legs and Matthias Schoenaerts as a roughneck who lets her forget about it for a while. The other is The Intouchables with François Cluzet as a rich quadriplegic and Omar Sy as his dubious caretaker. Rust and Bone is emotionally difficult and stylistically ambitious (though unfocused); The Intouchables is a predictable and simple feel-good movie that has all the style of an infomercial. Because of the Academy’s restrictive policy of requiring each country to submit one and only one movie for Oscar’s Best Foreign Film consideration, I’m not sure I have to tell you which movie France submitted.
This isn’t really that much of a shame. Rust and Bone may get recognized with a nomination for Cotillard in the much more prestigious Best Actress category (as a test, try to remember who won Best Actress last year. Now try remembering the Best Foreign Film), and besides, in its own way, The Intouchables is a worthy submission (though I don’t enjoy the thought of a country asserting that a movie with so little ambition is its best representative). At least once a year there’s a movie whose story is on auto-pilot, but its performances and energy rise above it to make a movie that does, in fact, make you feel good.The Intouchables is very much that movie this year.
When Driss (Sy) arrives at the Paris mansion of Philippe (Cluzet) for an interview to be his personal caretaker, he’s only there to get a piece of paper signed that indicates that he went to an interview so he can continue to collect unemployment. He isn’t qualified, he determines, and he doesn’t think he will get a fair interview anyway, so he spends the time insulting Philippe and hitting on his secretary Magalie (Audrey Fleurot). Magalie is repelled but Philippe, after a day of hearing platitudes about humanity from the experienced but soulless candidates, is curious, and he asks Driss to return the next day. I was shocked to find out that Driss’ uncouth street style would endear itself to Philippe’s buttoned-up aristocratic properness and that they would teach each other to broaden their world view.
Well, actually, that’s not true, only one worldview gets appreciably widened and that serves as the most unsettling portion of the film, which is too good–natured to be truly offensive, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was the story of a white man taking care of a black man, not the other way around. In fact, it appears only to be Driss who learns anything and is more of a court jester than a medical facilitator (Driss’ contribution to Philippe’s world view seems to be the introduction of Earth, Wind and Fire, a contribution not to be sniffed at). The progressive, saint-like Philippe is far beyond learning anything from the urban parolee; he already can see people beyond the color of their skin. The movie avoids feeling unseemly because Phillipe does express a real affection for him, and more so, reveals that he needs him. He likes Driss because he doesn’t treat him like a Fabergé egg (of which Phillipe has twenty-five, well, twenty-four.
When his friends warn him of having a caretaker that looks like Driss, he tells them that he feels like he doesn’t have his condition when Driss is around, that Driss’ lack of experience is his defining characteristic, seen in his handing Philippe the phone because he simply forgets that Philippe can’t move below the neck (when Driss realizes that Philippe has no feeling in his legs, he cheerfully pours hot water on them, to Philippe’s delight). Though Philippe has interests in classical music, art and the theater, he also enjoys Driss’ impolite belittling of them. They share an evening at the opera where Driss can’t help uproariously laughing at the tenor made up to resemble a tree. He is politely chided by the other patrons. “It’s in German anyway,” he tells them.
If the movie works at all it’s because of Sy’s performance, who is infectious enough to entertain for most of the movie’s running time. He has an easy charm and a multi-watt smile and, in a movie that is anything but subtle, slyly reveals his gradual affection for Philippe. For his part, Cluzet, who looks like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988), has little to do but smile warmly at this strange character in his employ. It’s hard not to think of the movie as a rich white man’s social experiment, something like Trading Places (1983), but Sy can keep our thoughts away from those realizations, and the simple bond between them seems real enough. The closing scene, which can be spotted a mile away and even exposes an unevenness in Philippe’s character (how can someone so willing to accept an ex-convict into his home and parasail while a paraplegic be so frightened to talk to a woman?),is actually quite powerful in spite of it all, simply because it’s less about what has been done and more about what Driss and Philippe would do for each other.
A lot of The Intouchables is like that: predictable, mushy scenes cobbled from the worst aspects of Driving Miss Daisy(1989), The Bucket List (2007) and any number of movies in which Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson have to look after children, but in the moment when you should be rolling your eyes, you’re smiling. There’s a moment when Driss tells a yuppie in an illegally parked car to move by dragging him out of the vehicle and hitting his head against the No Parking sign that trades on stereotypes and is childish in its disregard for consequences, but it’s also funny and righteous. This is a simple movie and can only entertain on a simple level, but that it does.