Like so many contemporary Europeans movies, especially those coming out of France, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s The Intouchables – France’s 2013 Oscar submission – borrows a typically Hollywood aesthetic. Somehow, even when existing along predictable plot points, fit with montages and TV-timeout humor, there’s an earnestness to this picture that stands out and makes it refreshing to watch. Aligned in contradiction with the cynical state of the world, The Intouchables puts class relations and human prejudices under a microscope in a way that has an encouraging amount of kindness to it.
Based on true events, The Intouchables tells the story of Driss (played with fervor by Omar Sy), a black young man from a rough part of Paris who wins the affection of a wealthy paraplegic, Phillippe, when he comes to an interview to be Phillippe’s caregiver. Unlike the needy and clueless candidates trying desperately before him, Driss just interviews on the hope that he might get a signature for his Benefit (the French term for unemployment). Drawn to his capricious nerve, Phillippe hires Driss, and so doing causes the young man to grow a sense of responsibility while also dosing Phillippe’s stiff world of classical music and high art with some real world insight and energy.
The core of The Intouchables builds from an unexpected encounter between it’s two seemingly desperate main characters that evolves into a strange paternal love. The idea of dropping a fish out of water into a place where he learns to love and be loved is nothing new. What is new are the prolonged moments of sadness, joy, horror, and pure fun shared in the many scenes between the two men.
The second half of The Intouchables, when it’s become clear that the piece will rest not on a central through line but the journey of its leads, elevates the film to something genuinely touching. A scene towards the end, when Driss nervously paraglides with Phillippe, stands out as relatable moment of connection. Filmed beautifully tight on Driss’ terrified face, the moment forces us to go with him through the stages from fear to excitement that his new father figure now provides.
Driss doesn’t overcome preternatural urges to rob or act violent. He commits petty larceny and he lusts after the busty redhead, just as any male his age might. Phillippe doesn’t treat his workers like dogs only to see the error of his privileged ways. These expected tropes would have resulted in a condescending film that lectured on how people need to battle through the flaws of their races, as though they’re born that way. We’ve certainly seen those tales before. Instead these are just kind, normal humans. And that’s what’s so fantastic about them.
While the film works well as a character study, it’s lack of a clear plot-line does hamper our ability to completely invest in its characters. I never felt as devoted to Phillippe’s quest to find love from a woman as I did in the love he had gained with Driss. Additionally, Driss’ struggles are unclear, except that he lives in a ghettoized district of Paris, with unforgiving, potentially dangerous, people. His exit towards the end felt like a huge leap for a guy so initially willing to part ways with his past. While the notion that Driss “can’t be pushing an invalid [his] entire life,” might be a compelling one, it’s alternative is never effectively addressed until it becomes the fulcrum that takes the story into its final act.
While aesthetically carbon-copied – somehow it felt like a meld of Half Nelson and the interiors of The Tailor of Panama – The Intouchables still manages to inspire hope because of a big heart at its center. Resting on the shoulders of two fantastic performances, the film works best when it lets its surrogate father and son relationship flourish. Ultimately, The Intouchables is a pleasant surprise of a film that tells us less about the time we live in than about the enduring potential for the human connection to transcend race and class. [B]