Black and white, ghetto-dweller and chateau owner, soul music and Vivaldi, spontaneous and uptight, super fit and fatally frail, full of life and resigned to death _ the extremities go on, and on, and on, in the French film The Intouchables, a cultural sensation and France's highest-grossing film of last year. It's not hard to see why.
The Intouchables Starring Omar Sy, Francois Cluzet. Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano.
The heart-warming appeal of the drama-comedy is dished out and served up, almost chewed for us, and the simple joy of the film owes mostly to its parade of cliches about race and class, and the shallow attempt to subvert them. What keeps us going is the cast.
Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet ping-pong the jokes with charm and ease, and the fact their characters are total opposites, which is exaggerated by the script, is covered up by their professional candour. That's particularly true with Sy, who gets to do almost all of the horsing around, while Cluzet, playing a man paralysed from his neck down, does eye-acting that reminds me of the young Dustin Hoffman.
Because this is a French film, even the most apparent hyperbole and typecasting seem tolerable _ let's see what happens with the American remake. The famous wheel of Hollywood formula will be working overtime.
Sy plays Driss, a Frenchman of African descent who just got out of jail. He lives in a crowded flat in an unpleasant arrondissement of Paris populated only by immigrants and drug dealers. Driss doesn't want a job when he shows up at the lavish mansion of Philippe (Cluzet), an extremely wealthy man who was in a severe paragliding accident that's made him a wheelchair-bound tetraplegic. Philippe is auditioning for a caretaker, and Driss popped in only to fulfill his parole obligation. True to form, the odd couple recipe kicks in when Driss' foul-mouthed ebullience and take-no-prisoner attitude win the admiration of the rich man. Driss, Philippe explains, is the only person who doesn't treat him like a desperate cripple _ meaning Driss isn't bound by bourgeois hypocrisy and over-politeness, just like most black men in movies aren't.
Vulgarity (as long as it hasn't become criminality) is a virtue here. So Driss is installed in Philippe's luxurious house decorated with a pre-French Revolution sensibility. The high-spirited caretaker is bumbling and crass, but those qualities become endearing in no time, especially when he staunchly refuses to perform a rectal enema on his helpless employer.
Predictably, Philippe grows to be fond of Driss, and the friendship between two men who have nothing in common is the central, unshakable sentiment of the film.
The Intouchables is based on a true story _ the announcement at the beginning of the film is designed to put us in cruise-control mode, ready to accept everything that comes after it.
I have no doubt in a real-life friendship between two men from two opposite social strata who find that they can complement each other. Only that the film's eagerness to please, its trivial sarcasm of the rich and their affected sophistication, pushes everything into caricature and spoils its own based-on-reality claim. When Driss derides an abstract painting _ "a nosebleed on a canvas" _ and subdues Bach with Earth, Wind and Fire, the class rebellion is too transparent and hackneyed to carry any genuine weight. The most obvious reference of the film is Driving Miss Daisy, and you also have a whiff of Scent Of A Woman (if one of them pulls out a gun, it could even be Lethal Weapon). The heart-soaring moments when friendship climbs over every socially-constructed wall are the movie's greatest pull, and directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano give us enough of that.
Driss is freedom, which is the only thing that wealthy and disabled Philippe doesn't have. Such conclusion, while true and reassuring to you and me, is also simplistic, and it's the film's conscious choice to stick with that.
About the author
- Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor