By Elizabeth Lee '16
Copy Editor and Film Columnist
At first glance, “The Intouchables” is a rather familiar and formulaic film — to the extent that in discussing it with my mother months after we had originally seen it together she had no recollection of it having not been in English. In that sense its familiarity serves as less of a bore and more of a comfort in its universally feel good nature.
The French film, directed and written by Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano and starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, became rather popular internationally — at least perhaps as popular as any foreign film tends to be outside its own country — upon its international release in 2012. Based on the lives of actual people, it tells the tale of what happens when two people of different worlds — of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds — cross paths and in an expectedly-unexpected turn of events find rich companions in one another. It is a basic pattern that has been continuously described as reminiscent of “Driving Miss Daisy,” in which the posh and aloof employer is confronted with the down-to-earth irreverence of their caretaker and both end up inspiring the other to perceive life a little differently than they did before. Where “The Intouchables” becomes more interestingly its own version of the familiar blueprint of a story is in the unabashed humor surrounding touchy subjects like race and disability as well as a relationship between the two main characters that is odd yet natural enough to seem more sincere than sappy.
Philippe is an enormously wealthy and cynical older man who half-heartedly and with more annoyance at his need for assistance than actual helplessness seeks a caretaker. In comes Driss, who cuts a line of candidates to request a signature proving he interviewed and is upfront in admitting that he has no previous experience nor even actual desire to take on the job. He just wants the signature so that he can continue to live off of welfare benefits. Philippe expresses great appreciation for Driss’s lack of ‘pity’ and the next day Driss moves in on a trial period.
There is a great amount of honesty in the relationship between Philippe and Driss that comes across in significant part due to the honesty of the actors’ performances. Driss laughs upon clumsily becoming acquainted with modern art and classical music and has no problem expressing outright horror at the prospect of having to take care of Philippe’s less-than-dignified needs. Philippe, meanwhile, relies on Driss in a way that Driss has not often found himself capable of or interested in. He eventually encourages Philippe to take greater control of his life by being stricter with his adopted daughter, pursuing a relationship with a woman with whom he has been exchanging letters and encouraging him to poke fun at himself constantly while seeking value in life’s little pleasures; cue image of Driss riding on the back of Philippe’s wheelchair yelling to see how fast they can go.
In two particularly memorable scenes, Driss builds off a sense of humor that borders on uncomfortable but never fails to make us and Philippe laugh in spite of ourselves.
During a birthday concert in which Philippe tries to share with Driss his love of classical music, Driss remains unimpressed — pretending to gallop to Bach, reciting to Vivaldi the phone spiel of the Paris Unemployment Agency when one is on hold. He then leads the room in a dance party to Earth Wind and Fire. And when shaving a rather melancholy and bitter Philippe, Driss tortures him for his own amusement with an assortment of ridiculous facial hair styles — a biker mustache, a handlebar mustache and finally pushing his luck with a Hitler mustache.
Perhaps what feels most familiar about this film is the desire to see past the bleakness of tragedy and even day-to-day life, to laugh at the preposterousness of ourselves and the world, to manage its weight by perceiving it in relation to all lighter things and shifting between the two. Simply put, it is a feel-good movie. It is not a particularly profound feel good, but there is sometimes something more inherently profound in the very nature of this quality.