I can’t count the number of acclaimed foreign films centered on characters who cannot mobilize half or all their limbs on one hand—if you’ll excuse the awkward phrasing. “The Intouchables” appears to be just another one of those bizarre common niche films, and in many ways it boils down to just that. But with memorable, entertaining characters and a certain fearlessness in the way it uses humor, this French film actually stands out. Again, pardon the phrasing.
Like so many great films, “The Intouchables” centers on an unlikely friendship. Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a quadriplegic millionaire seeking a caregiver and Driss (Omar Sy) is a troubled young African-Frenchman with zero filter. The two find each other when Driss applies just trying to get Philippe to sign his papers showing he tried to get a job so that he can continue receiving welfare checks. Philippe decides to push Driss by insisting he take the job on a trial basis.
The film opens with a high-speed “chase” of sorts, showing a virtually dissolved boundary between the two characters. Although filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano portray their relationship in such a seamless way, the conflict of the rest of the film largely involves how they arrive at a homogenous point, and it’s anything but simple.
At the same time, “The Intouchables” doesn’t offer much more in terms of drama. Philippe and Driss each have their own personal hurdles to overcome (Philippe has a romantic relationship with a pen pal he’s afraid to pursue and some problems with his daughter, Driss has his financial and family situation), and the two have a lot of adjustments to make to one another. That said, no other conflicting forces are at play here. Instead, humor makes this film so surprisingly effective.
While few will completely identify with Philippe’s intellectual and sophisticated tastes, it’s Driss’ bold, put-yourself-out-there approach to life that is the more impressive characteristic. It doesn’t matter how many body parts you can control; if you have trouble letting it all out, you’ll identify with Philippe and envy Driss’ spirt to some extent.
Sy has such a natural way about him as he navigates the humor the script. Nakache and Toledano are not afraid to have Driss cross boundaries, and when he does, Sy makes it feel so natural and understandable. The way Driss scoffs at classical music and opera yet also appreciates them combines artistic appreciation with a “what we’re all really thinking” sentiment that begs laughter.
Examining every inch of “The Intouchables,” formula really comes into play between the character with physical limitations motif, the unlikely relationship motif and more, but it has such a genuine spirit anyway. Nakache and Toledano create brilliant character- and relationship-building scenes and sequences that emphasize how much we can relate to the characters even if we can’t fully identify with either of them. Even toward the very end, in a scene involving facial hair, the filmmakers are having fun crafting this story and experimenting with the relationship at the film’s core (in addition to boundaries of political correctness).
“The Intouchables” strikes all the right chords that both validate and justify its success in France and all over the world. The humor and the levity with which it approaches its subject matter goes toe-to-toe with its poignancy as well as its social and psychological themes, eradicating the need for turbulent or existential drama so often present and necessary in films that share its characteristics.
Essentially, what could’ve been a gloomier affair or an against-all-odds film turns into something most unexpectedly vibrant. “The Intouchables” examines life with a lens much more appropriate for viewing the human condition than the films it can easily be lumped in or associated with. To put any label other than “universal” on its would be a gross over-categorization.
Written and Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Starring: Francois Cluzet, Omar Sy