That a French film, The Intouchables, is touted as the feel-good movie of the year may fill American cinemaphiles with equal parts disbelief, dread and resistance. For this reviewer, the terms “feel-good” and “French film” are mutually exclusive, based on such cringe-inducing attempts at forced fun as Delicatessen and Amélie. And most moviegoers don’t readily embrace premeditated manipulation.
Well, go ahead and be skeptical and plagued with trepidation, but don’t resist. If you do, you’ll miss a very enjoyable movie.
The film opens with the purring of one of the main character’s Maserati Quattroporte. The viewer is not abducted into the car. The door is merely left ajar as an invitation to hop in. Now, seriously, would you rather ride in a Maserati or take the bus? Filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano leave the choice up to you.
In an Odd Couple sort of setup, The Intouchables binds two characters who have nothing in common in a dramatic deadlock. Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a middle-aged, enormously wealthy, French, wheelchair-bound quadraplegic. Driss (Omar Sy) is a young, poor, Senegalese, athletically built drifter. The two are thrown together when Driss, merely to fulfill the requirements of the French welfare system, applies for a job as Philippe’s caregiver.
Driss is brutally honest and offensive during the job interview, making it clear that he has no interest in the position and merely wants a signature proving that he is actively looking for work. But compared with the string of milquetoast applicants who feign compassion for the disabled but merely want the work, Driss appears refreshingly honest and unpretentious to Philippe. As a challenge, Philippe bets Driss that he won’t last a month on the job. Never one to back down from a challenge, Driss accepts, and the classic unity-of-opposites vehicle is off and running.
But in a very surprising move by Nakache and Toledano, that vehicle pulls into the garage in the second act. After a few minor skirmishes in the battle of wills, Philippe and Driss become fast friends. Too fast, by the traditional rules of drama. It doesn’t take long for Driss to get Philippe to loosen up and enjoy the “finer” things in life, like marijuana and Thai massage. (Even though Philippe feels nothing from the neck down, we learn that the earlobe is a highly erogenous zone.)
What at first appears like a callous disregard for Philippe’s misfortune turns into Driss’s most glowing asset as a care-giver. He cracks horribly insensitive jokes about handicapped people, which make Philippe laugh and momentarily liberate him from the stigma of being disabled. In a very telling scene (which appears uncharacteristically early for this sort of dramatic structure), Philippe’s financial advisor warns him that Driss is a bad influence and should be let go. Philippe counters with the fact that Driss possesses the one trait that a caregiver of his must have: “What he has is a complete absence of pity for me.”
So how do Nakache and Toledano hold our interest in a situational drama whose conflict is resolved well before the middle of the movie? Ingeniously, they do so by allowing Philippe and Driss to team up against their respective, individual problems. Driss forces Philippe to face up to his spoiled daughter and dole out the loving discipline she so desperately needs. Philippe, in turn, gets Driss to confront unresolved issues with his own family, in particular his adoptive mother and a younger brother heading down the dead-end path of drug dealing. And in the ultimate act of friendship, Driss forces Philippe to confront his fear of pursuing romance as a man paralyzed from the neck down.
Add to this very satisfying dramatic resolution two extremely engaging lead actors, plus one of the best movie soundtracks in years (reflecting Driss’s love of American 70s soul and Philippe’s passion for Classical music), and you have a movie that makes you feel good, not because of its superficially heart-tugging subject matter, but simply because it is a really good film.