Film Review – The Intouchables
Olivier Nakache’s and Eric Toledano’s film The Intouchables (2011) is one of the finest movies of the year and one of the most heartwarming films of recent memory. It tells the story of two people who normally would have nothing to do with each other, but who create an unlikely bond that only they can share and understand. Too often we see films that are cynical, heavy, and focus on the darker side of human nature. Watching a film like this, one that is so good and earnest and from the heart, is like a breath of fresh air. There was not a moment or scene that felt wasted, not a laugh or a tear that at any point felt forced. Although this is territory that has been explored before, I couldn’t help but be completely absorbed by the emotion and comedy throughout. This is one of those rare instances where I simply did not want the film to end.
Much of that has to do with the performances and chemistry between the film’s two main leads. Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy are two actors who at first glance look and feel like two people on opposite ends of the spectrum, but somehow work off of each other in brilliant fashion. Cluzet plays Philippe, a rich aristocrat who, after a tragic accident, is confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. His days are normally spent being bathed, dressed, and fed by other people. Philippe is in need of a new caretaker, but many of the applicants are boring carbon copies of one another. And it is here where we meet Driss, played by Sy. Driss has no qualifications whatsoever—he doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of a handicapped person. In their initial interview, Driss makes it clear that he is there simply as a requirement to qualify for financial benefits. It’s because of this upfront and honest personality, coupled with the fact that Driss treats him more like an actual person than the other applicants, that Philippe gives Driss a chance.
This is a set-up we’ve seen before, where a person of color and of low income is hired to help and assist a wealthy Caucasian, and to be honest I had some initial reservations about the film because of that aspect. Personally, I would like to see more films made in which the roles are reversed, because those situations do exist. But with that minor gripe aside, I found myself quickly convinced at the believability of this partnership. Right from the start, we see a mutual respect and camaraderie build between Philippe and Driss. The key is that Driss is not medically trained; he walks into his job completely unaware. Because of that, he treats Philippe differently. Instead of interacting out of sheer medical necessity, Driss spends time with Philippe because he sincerely enjoys his company. Some of the best scenes of the film are when Driss and Philippe are simply passing jokes and cultural insights between themselves, both just as quick-witted and sharp as the other.
Both actors are terrific in their roles and deserve critical acclaim. Cluzet is able to portray a man who has gone through much sadness and joy in his life with only the use of his face and head. We can see pain, happiness, and history behind Philippe’s eyes, and as his and Driss’s relationship builds, so does his lust for life and hope for a brighter future beyond his physical condition. I have not seen Omar Sy in any other work yet, but I would be surprised if this film doesn’t garner him more attention. This is a star-making performance, a perfect blend of the comedic and dramatic, and yet no hint of effort in both. Driss comes from the streets, and lives in an apartment overrun by family members. He has seen tough times and sees tough times ahead for his family, and does whatever he can to provide for them. As an actor, Sy has unlimited charisma; when he is on screen it is difficult to notice anyone else besides him. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with his performance. Driss is frank and truthful almost to a fault. He lets you know exactly what he’s thinking and how he thinks things should be done, and yet he never comes off in a negative light. In fact, his positive spirit and keen sense of humor provides for some of the film’s biggest laughs and most touching moments.
That is what makes The Intouchables such an effective film—the fact that a story involving a person taking care of a quadriplegic can come off dramatically and yet also be one of the funniest comedies of the year. It develops naturally; in the beginning we find ourselves smiling, and by the end we’re laughing out loud. One factor that plays into this is that Philippe’s accident is explained but never delved into, because this is not that kind of film. Driss works as a catalyst to help Philippe move on—to show him that life is about more than just the use of his arms and legs—and I was moved to see how that dynamic played out. I could feel Philippe’s and Driss’s relationship build and deepen; these are two men who truly cared about and wanted the best for the other. Despite the issues the premise may bring up, the excellence of the performances won me over. This is a movie that shows that there are people in the world who have a good heart, who don’t just look out for themselves, but for others as well, and that sometimes happiness is found in the places we least expect it.
Final Grade: A