When a millionaire (Francois Cluzet) becomes a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident, he hires Senegalese ex-con Driss (Omar Sy) to take care of him. Despite their differences in class and culture, an unlikely friendship soon develops, founded in honesty and humour.
Deep breath: The Intouchables is a well-made feel-good movie about overcoming adversity and revising one's outlook for the better through an unlikely but salutary, mutually enriching alliance. People everywhere love it. (Well, except Russia.) The End.
Something about this movie has the power to federate
The Intouchables, the fourth film written and directed by the French duo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, has achieved what every storytelling artist and entertainer dreams of: near-universal success.
In the year since the film began its meteoric rise in its native France, pundits and critics (while praising the film, for the most part) have been scratching their heads, trying to figure out why this well-cast and entertaining but hardly earth-shaking bittersweet comedy has enjoyed such run-away success.
Just how successful has it been? Three million people purchased tickets in a matter of days and the tally currently stands at 20 million tickets sold in France. (One million tickets sold confers hit status on all but the biggest budget movies and The Intouchables had a relatively modest budget of about US$10.5 million. It has taken in over $385 million and counting.) One out of every 3.25 people in France has paid to see it on the big screen. (With attendance figures like that, just think: If subliminal advertising really worked, a sneaky message between frames urging people to stop smoking or queue up neatly in public places might have changed the behaviour of an entire nation.)
As of this writing, over 23 million people have paid to see The Intouchables outside France, with 25 million a distinct possibility. People everywhere love it. (Well, except Russia.) Despite a climate of ongoing financial crisis, the film has attracted crowds in Greece, Italy and Spain. Half a million people have seen it in Israel. What is it they're flocking to see?
An obscenely wealthy and culturally refined white male quadriplegic hires a healthy young black fellow from the projects with a criminal record and no medical training to be his caregiver. With a premise like that, you're probably in such a hurry to get to the nearest movie theatre that you'll stop reading right here.
When it was released in South Korea in March, 450,000 people went to see it in 4 days. Nobody knows why. By September over 1.7 million filmgoers had bought a ticket.
In September The Intouchables surpassed Amelie as the most-seen French-language film ever outside of France. It is the French entry in the Best Foreign Language film category at the Oscars. (Impress-your-friends trivia: France makes over 250 films a year and it is up to a committee of 7 people to select the one movie that will represent the nation in the Foreign Language race at the Academy Awards. Apparently this year it was between two films from writer-directors whose main protagonist happens to be in a wheelchair: Francois Cluzet as Philippe in The Intouchables and Marion Cotillard as the double amputee survivor of a marine mammal attack in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone.)
As one of those aforementioned head-scratchers, I am comforted by an interview with Nakache and Toledano in the trade paper Le Film Français of 28 September in which the lucky filmmakers state: "The film struck some sort of nerve that we're at a loss to explain ourselves."
Why would people all over the world (well, except Russia, where the film flopped) care about the romanticised true story of multi-millionaire quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo Di Borgo and his ex-criminal, socially disadvantaged Algerian caregiver, here turned into a strapping black man of Senegalese heritage?
Omar Sy, who plays Driss, is handsome and athletic and exudes charisma, aided by a lovely toothy smile. There has been much mention of his charisma, which was known to French pay-television viewers and some filmgoers. But he was no better known outside France than the proverbial hole-in-the-wall when the film began to take other territories by storm. It is the most-seen French-language film ever in Germany, for example, where an astonishing 8.6 million tickets have been sold. And Pozzo Di Borgo's autobiography is a best selling volume there, too, since the film's release. According to audience research, people in well-to-do areas like the film as much as people in low-income areas. Disabled people have praised the film's pity-free approach to disabilities. The directors have received thousands of touching and enthusiastic letters from wheelchair users worldwide.
When I saw The Intouchables at a sold-out commercial screening shortly after it opened in Paris, there really were audience members from 8 to 80. And they really did laugh and cry and leave the premises saying to the strangers around them "Wasn't that terrific?" and "Now, that’s what I call a movie!"
Something about this movie has the power to federate. That said, there are a few exceptions.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the xenophobic, right-wing political party the National Front, had no use for the film and said so. Of course, he did so from a subset of film criticism that leaves something to be desired: He hadn't actually seen the movie and didn't intend to. But he made it known that he didn't care for the theory that the middle-aged white guy in the wheelchair represents stratified old-fashioned France and the strong and healthy black guy represents the energy of non-white populations from immigrant stock who are the alleged future of the nation.
The English-language trade reviews pointed out how formulaic the story is while also predicting box office success. There is serious talk of an American remake perhaps starring Colin Firth as the disabled fellow. But remaking The Intouchables seems like a needless venture in so much as the original is already pretty much a Hollywood movie. Its protagonists are ripe for growth and change at the start and by the end they've grown and changed for the better. Driss is more polite and has been exposed to classical music and modern art. Philippe is no longer depressed and he knows more about popular music than he did.
One might say their status as outsiders brought them together. We'd all like to believe that with a little mutual respect and an open mind it's possible to bridge the divide of race and class.
Our two heroes are not superheroes – they're just regular guys who have had different advantages and hardships in life. Cluzet (the main character in Tell No One) is superb as Philippe, who dreads being pitied. And Sy is infectiously entertaining as Driss, although it's hard not to cringe when he dances for his white employer to the kind of music cliché purveyors assume people who look like him listen to instead of Mozart.
It's also hard to picture what sort of story would emerge if the roles were reversed – if the poor black guy with a criminal record ended up in a wheelchair unable to move from the neck down, what's the likelihood that a white aristocrat would become his intimate caregiver and best friend?
When assessing its capacity to entertain audiences outside the country of origin, movie analysts speak of a film's ability to "travel". The Intouchables has traveled almost as much as Hillary Clinton. The run-away success of The Intouchables in its native France and beyond almost makes one believe in conspiracy theories about a spray that can compel people to see a given film without ever suspecting what planted the idea in their ticket-purchasing minds. The original French poster was nothing special, there was no catchy theme song and the ad campaign was not excessive. And then there's the title: The Intouchables. The publications that still use ink used up a lot of it speculating on what in the world the title actually means. Because, not unlike the far-catchier Reservoir Dogs, the title's meaning is, well, a mystery. Does it mean that the two main characters are outcasts like the untouchable caste in India? Does it mean that when the two of them join forces they're invincible and nobody can 'touch’ them?
Amelie's international popularity is far easier to understand. That movie takes place in a heightened version of the slightly idealised Paris we all carry in our heads. (Anybody can come to Paris and visit the café where Amelie extolled the virtues of crème brùlée – director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's neighbourhood café in Montmartre. My editor at the time argued with me that it was obviously a set built on a soundstage, but it wasn't.)
A few contrarians griped that Amelie overlooked the gritty and multicultural parts of the real Paris. That came across like complaining that few newspaper reporters in Rome are as gorgeous as Gregory Peck is in Roman Holiday.
Apart from being inspired by a true story, what does The Intouchables have going for it, 11 years later, that has made it even more popular than Amelie ever was? (While Amelie ranked as that year's most-seen film in France, over twice as many locals have gone to see Intouchables.)
The Intouchables is a comedy. Driss has a lively and irreverent sense of humour. He shows no pity for Philippe's handicap, which is what attracted Philippe to Driss in the first place.
There is at least one joke that isn't really funny but has French audiences roaring with laughter. Philippe experiences frequent residual pain from within, but he can't feel any external stimulus from the neck down. Driss accidentally spills boiling water on his employer's bare leg. Dazzled by the fact that Philippe doesn't flinch, he continues to pour boiling water on Philippe's vulnerable exposed flesh while saying the equivalent of "Well, will you look at that! I'll be damned!"
That never happened in real life, where at least second degree burns rather than laughter would have been the result. But the film recreates one of the pranks the two men did enjoy, namely Driss deliberately breaking the speed limit on Paris roads until their pricey car was pulled over by police. Philippe would then pretend to be having a seizure and the two fakers would not only not get a ticket but would be given a police escort to the nearest hospital. Call me a curmudgeon, but I'm not sure what's so hilarious about driving at dangerous speeds on a public thoroughfare for kicks as a prelude to misleading officers of the law.
Philippe is ridiculously wealthy. The opulence of his existence is a given in the film; we're not told how he came by his wealth. (The second son of a duke, the real fellow is a genuine aristocrat who ran a prominent champagne firm. He was paralysed following a 1993 paragliding accident although he had made hundreds of paragliding flights.) In the film, Philippe lives in a private mansion in central Paris, with servants. He owns fabulous sports cars and a private jet.
Most people like comedies about really rich individuals because they tend to live in lavish settings and engage in desirable-looking activities that give the rest of us a thrill by proxy. We can feel filthy rich for an hour or two without the drudgery of attending shareholder meetings or hiring staff to polish the silver.
There's the argument that the film is "based on a true story". We know that the real aristocrat whose story it is approves of the film. We know that disabled people massively endorse it. And we also know that one true aspect has been modified in a non-negligible way: the real caregiver is one Abdel Sellou, a self-described "ugly" fellow born in Algeria. The filmmakers wrote the part for easy-on-the-eyes Sy, who has appeared in all of their previous movies.
It's a buddy comedy between two men who should never have met, whose backgrounds are so different they may as well hail from different planets.
Now that The Intouchables is France's official contender for one of the five slots in the Foreign Language Oscar category, Harvey Weinstein, who bought the distribution rights for the U.S. (where the film has attracted a little over a million customers) will do whatever it is he does to bludgeon Academy voters into voting for films he has had a hand in making and/or distributing. (For the record, Mr. Weinstein didn't have a thing to do with actually making The Artist and yet, somehow, in deference to his marketing acumen, people who should know better started referring it to it as "Harvey Weinstein's The Artist.")
While the French enjoy artistic recognition as much as the next nation, they find it mildly distasteful to campaign for anything except political office. Régine Hatchando, who heads the French movie trade organisation UniFrance, is understandably proud of the film's success abroad despite (a phrase you may not hear every day) "American cultural imperialism". Hatchando points out that American films occupy as much as 90% of the international market "and France holds 2 to 3 percent which, all the same, puts us in second place in the global market!"
J.K. Rowling has given countless readers worldwide page-turning pleasure but we would all be uncomfortable were she to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The same principle applies to Intouchables where Oscars are concerned.
Is The Intouchables an enjoyable movie if you overlook a few potentially queasy-making scenes? Absolutely. Is it great filmmaking in the neighbourhood of art? Nope.