One is understandably wary of a movie like The Intouchables after years of heart-tugging relationships between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds who learn important life lessons from each other. A young man from the projects shows up to interview for a job he's not qualified for merely so he can apply for benefits. The job is to take care of a rich paraplegic who turns out to like the kid's doesn't-give-a-crap style and hires him despite his lack of qualifications. I am guilty of this knee-jerk suspicion although not without reason but I'm always thrilled to be disproven. Thankfully I was very wrong about The Intouchables.
Indeed all of those things happen in the movie but the skill of the cast and crew elevate what could be even the cheesiest moments. Driss (Omar Sy) is a young Senegalese man from the projects. He's got a record and he's totally unqualified to take care of a paraplegic; he doesn't even want the job but Philippe (François Cluzet) is tired of caretakers who feel pity for him. Driss doesn't feel sorry for anyone including himself. Later in the movie Driss bluntly tells Philippe he'd have shot himself had he been similarly paralyzed. Philippe dryly retorts "That's not easy in my condition." Driss doesn't have a lot of options so staying in a luxurious house for a few weeks while he auditions for a job is a pretty attractive situation.
At first this set-up is played for humor. Driss is so happy to have his own bathtub that he's busy blasting music through his Dr. Dre headphones to hear Philippe over the baby monitor he's supposed to have near him at all times. Driss relentlessly hits on Philippe's assistant Magalie played by Audrey Fleurot. He refuses to attend to Philippe's more personal needs and is uncomfortable even dressing him.
This dynamic changes forever when Philippe is seized with phantom pains one night. Driss has no problem asking what most of the people in Philippe's life wouldn't dare like whether or not Philippe can have sex. He shares joints with Philippe placing them gently between the other man's lips and instructing him on how to inhale correctly; they help him relax when the pain and panic seizes him at night. He takes the dust cloth off the fancy Porsche in the driveway and drives Philippe around in that rather than his wheelchair-friendly van; at first it's because he's embarrassed to be seen in the van and because hell it's a Porsche. But it becomes a symbol of Driss' disregard for what's "proper" for Philippe; it might not be as safe as his van but it's fun for them both.
Inspired by the documentary A La Vie A La Mort this French crowd-pleaser snagged five César award nominations and Omar Sy won Best Actor over The Artist's Jean Dujardin. The writers and filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache took some small liberties with the real life story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his friend and former caretaker Abdel Sellou. Omar Sy is obviously not Moroccan as Abdel is but the filmmakers had worked with him before; he'd grown up in the Parisian projects and they felt that "the background is less important than the personality type in this kind of story." Toledano and Nakache met with di Borgo and consulted with him via email as well.
The dynamic between Sy and Cluzet is spot on and the movie's direction and cinematography lends it an art house feel that in addition to the actors' proficiency keeps it from veering into overly sentimental territory. There are moments that feel off like when Driss comically pops his eyes out at the sight of his very own bathtub but once the movie hits its stride the characters gather meat and dimension.
Brace yourself for the coming adaptation with Colin Firth as Philippe and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) to direct. Meanwhile I predict we'll be seeing more of The Intouchables this Oscar season.