The Intouchables is about the inappropriate. Not in any gross-out or controversial way – instead, it shows that the inappropriate choice can be exactly what is needed in any situation, and for that The Intouchables is an appropriate film for any situation and one I truly love to watch.
Based on true events, The Intouchables are Philippe and Driss, Parisians from opposite ends of the spectrum whose types would normally never interact except if one was to burgle the other. This is, of course, the basic premise of countless buddy comedies; one is white and wealthy, the other is black and on benefits. But The Intouchables stands out by presenting a central pair who perfectly get one another almost from the outset; these are kindred spirits, despite their differences and divisions, and despite their families and friends telling them it is inappropriate.
Philippe has had more than his fair share of misfortune to match his material fortune. His privileged but tragic life has left him quadriplegic and wheelchair-bound, widowed and responsible for a teenage daughter’s upbringing. The Intouchables demonstrates the relentless struggle of disability, and the constant support work required, through scenes of devastating sadness and tragicomic observation. We’ll witness Philippe experiencing violent, searing phantom pain throughout his body, where we have previously seen that he is impervious to boiling water poured (humorously) on his legs.
French screen legend François Cluzet delivers a powerhouse performance as Philippe, offering a window into this world through acting limited to above the neck. Emotions are the palette of the face, and Cluzet makes full use of an impressive range to convey Philippe’s life with humour, grace, resignation, and anger. And then there’s the other side to acting this character – keeping still. This is used to great effect throughout The Intouchables, with a running line of physical comedy founded in inactivity – falling out of a chair, having a potato become mashed in his eye, and being put through increasingly inappropriate fail-hair stylings, to name a few highlights.
Fed up of being handled with kid gloves by technical carers wearing white coats, Philippe takes a gamble on Driss. Sucked in as much by the bathroom as the challenge (can he last two weeks?), Driss, who only came for a signature to count towards his benefit, is offered the complicated and demanding role of care-giver. Philippe’s brother urges caution, saying that street guys have no pity – this is exactly what Philippe wants, yet despite this it is immediately clear that, however inappropriate he may seem on paper, Driss possesses and exudes significantly more compassion than the clinical trained carers. Omar Sy’s unbendable charisma burns brightly in Driss, making him a magnetic presence on screen and a motivational presence in Philippe’s life. With broad grin, natural charm, and an attitude which treats Philippe as an equal – not his superior through wealth or inferior through health – Driss is the man Philippe has been looking for ever since his accident, however inappropriate his history.
Music plays a central part in The Intouchables, for the characters and the viewers. Both Philippe and Driss take great pleasure in their music, and in their relationship to it and through it. A stand-out scene sees the leads sharing their chosen favourites – Vivaldi and Earth, Wind & Fire – trying to get an emotion out of the other; Sy’s moves here are phenomenal and contagious. Yet again, there is a bittersweet edge to the joy, as Cluzet shows Philippe to be sad that he can’t dance, yet happy he can see everyone else dancing. Ludovico Einaudi provided the original score, creating music which is simultaneously simple and complex, with repetition shadowing the routine of daily life and the desire to break the cycle. Through a piano solo Einaudi manages to capture Philippe’s need for speed and the need for new; the contrast between his music tastes and those of Driss highlight their differences, yet the track choices speak of the potential for freedom through this new force.
Check out the soundtrack on Spotify:
Here we have a man who loves speed, but is unable to move of his own volition. When this pent-up bundle of untapped energy storms into his life, Philippe is understandably drawn to this man. This inappropriate choice of caregiver is mirrored in his choice of car. It’s a pleasing detail that the seemingly unused (bien sûr) car is a Maserati Quattroporte – a veiled reference to its owner’s quadriplegia? In place of speed, Philippe has taken to spending his millions on works of modern art, and doesn’t think twice about spending €40,000 on a piece of art to add to a bulging collection in his palatial home. Driss’s reaction to this, along with his subsequent attempts to recreate it and the hi-jinks which ensue, provide further examples of both viewpoints being shown – each being given merits, and each being thoroughly enjoyable, where many such films would choose to mock one side.
Beautifully shot, with terrific detail, energy and clear direction, The Intouchables leaves viewers in the same mood as the main supporting actresses – empowered, with a twinkle in one’s eye. Inevitably, there is an English-language remake in the works, with Colin Firth and Kevin Hart attached to star. Personally I would have gone with Dustin Hoffman and Channing Tatum, but irrespective of this the success of the film will not be found solely in its humour or earnestness – the success of The Intouchables came from its perfect balance between drama and comedy and its commitment to making the inappropriate the only option worth considering. With Samba out this week, reuniting directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano with Omar Sy, now is the perfect time to revisit this ever-appropriate film.