Quadriplegia? It’s no big deal.
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 1, 2012
A box-office smash in France and a multiple nominee at this year’s Cesar awards (the French Oscars), “The Intouchables” is a feel-good movie about a distinctly feel-bad subject: quadriplegia. The fact-based story, which focuses on the relationship between Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a white millionaire paralyzed in a paragliding accident, and Driss (Omar Sy), the black hustler who becomes his live-in caregiver, neatly avoids most of the mess and stress of the subject while focusing on all the fun.
Aside from a scene or two hinting at Driss’s initial reluctance to change Philippe’s diapers, and a couple of sequences in which Philippe is shown having difficulty breathing in the middle of the night, there’s little to suggest that there’s anything terribly disagreeable -- for either party -- about the setup. The two go for breakneck car rides, goof around with shaving cream and, in general, have a great time.
Some of this is due to Philippe’s preference that his caregiver not feel sorry for him. And so Driss dutifully obliges, as does the movie, written and directed by the filmmaking duo of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache (“Tellement Proches”). One disturbing scene, played for laughs, shows Driss pouring scalding tea on Philippe’s leg to test whether his employer can feel anything.
That it doesn’t get bogged down in a pity party is both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On one hand, “The Intouchables” is to be commended for portraying Philippe as a fully rounded person -- a man who is more than his medical condition. Philippe can take a joke, even if he’s the butt of it.
But it’s also more than a little unrealistic.
Another troubling aspect is Driss’s role in the narrative, which comes dangerously close to what’s known as the “Magic Negro” syndrome. Driss, whose primary function seems to be as a conduit for Philippe to reconnect with the life force he’s forgotten, could use a little less condescension to avoid becoming a racial cliche. Although the film glances at the world of drugs, crime, unemployment and poverty out of which Driss comes -- mostly through a subplot involving his troubled young relative (Cyril Mendy) -- for the most part it glosses over unpleasantness.
Maybe that’s what people like about the movie. Neither Driss’s condition nor Philippe’s is seen as defining or even especially limiting. Without being overtly political, there’s a whiff of conservative self-reliance throughout “The Intouchables.”
That said, there also are a number of nice, if vaguely “Odd Couple”-ish moments. A scene in which Philippe drags Driss to a four-hour opera is pretty darn funny. And another -- during which Driss loosens up Philippe’s stodgy birthday party by dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” -- is fairly heartbreaking, if only for the look of joy and longing on Philippe’s face.
Cluzet, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dustin Hoffman, was nominated for a best actor Cesar. He probably deserves it as much as Sy, who took home that prize.
The lens through which the “The Intouchables” was filmed may be too rose-colored for some people’s taste, but the window that these talented performers throw open -- a window onto the strange and touching friendship between two very different men -- is crystal clear.
Contains obscenity, drug use and some suggestive material. In French with English subtitles.