Film Review: The Intouchables

Endearing and exuberant comedy about unlikely friends who help each other overcome handicaps—physical and otherwise.

When it comes to comedy, the French like nothing better than a buddy movie, especially if the story revolves around an odd couple: My Best Friend (Daniel Auteuil and Dany Boon), Après Vous (Daniel Auteuil and José Garcia), The Closet (Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu)…and we’re only at the “A’s”! The Intouchables is the apogee of this love affair, and not only because it features two characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar. The romp broke box-office records in France, grossing more than $166 million ($339.5 million across Europe) to beat out the former champ, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks)…another buddy movie.

Based on a true story, The Intouchables (“untouchables” in English, but for reasons known only to The Weinstein Company, the distributor added an English article to the French noun so that the title makes no sense in either language) recounts the unlikely friendship between an exceedingly wealthy quadriplegic, Philippe (François Cluzet), rendered immobile by a paragliding accident, and his impecunious caretaker, Driss (Omar Sy), a streetwise immigrant from Senegal. In this sense, the film is a tale of two civitates, the refined world of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where the well-coiffed-and-coutured break from shopping with kir royales at Les Deux Magots, and the rough-edged banlieue, the suburbs of Paris where the gendarmerie refuse to go, or so it’s said. But filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (Just Friends), while riffing on the obvious social and cultural discrepancies between its protagonists, aren’t out to Occupez la Sixième Arrondissement, and happily rely on the exuberant performances of Sy, who in his first major role won a César for best actor, and Cluzet, who charms us, literally, without moving a muscle. It might seem faint praise to label a movie the feel-good picture of the year, but The Intouchables is infectiously ebullient and delightfully insouciant, a sentimental send-up of modern society and an endearing testament to human resilience and empathy.

The plot needs little explication. Driss, recently released from prison after serving six months for theft, shows up at Philippe’s sumptuous mansion (decorated à la Louis XIV) to interview for the position of personal care attendant. It doesn’t matter that he has no qualifications: He’s not interested in the job, but rather the process of application, for he must be rejected to qualify for unemployment. Driss systematically offends everyone around him while hitting on Philippe’s lovely secretary, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), proving his don’t-give-a-damn bona fides. Paradoxically, that’s exactly what Philippe wants from his helper—no pity, plenty of brass—to thrust him to back into life.

The rest of the film unfolds as a series of vignettes, set-pieces and outright goofs. To cite an early one, Driss decides they will travel henceforth not in Philippe’s handicapped-adapted van but in his disused Maserati Quattroporte, which he takes for a gravel-spewing spin around the courtyard before motoring down the Champs-Elysees with royal abandon. Some bits are unexpected, others are standard fare: The Intouchables is très French in another way, in that much of the humor mocks the bourgeoisie, if we can include the super-rich in that category. (The French, among the most conventional of people, love to think of themselves as anarchists.) That said, Nakache and Toledano are irreverent enough to glean humor from Philippe’s condition and Driss’ cheek without lapsing into insolence.

Sy, who appeared in a number of Nakache and Toledano’s shorts and their feature Tellement proches (So Close), has powerful screen presence, an intelligence and grace we used to call animal magnetism. A scene in which he dances (as if to give legs to the wheelchair-bound Philippe) puts one in mind of Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, and his performance portends an equally dynamic career. Cluzet (Paris, Tell No One, French Kiss) manages to hold his own against his charismatic co-star despite that he can act only with his voice and expression, an understated performance that conceals impressive craft. The excellent Anne Le Ny rounds out the cast as Yvonne, Philippe’s concierge.

The Intouchables is adapted from Le Second Souffle, a memoir by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo about his friendship with his assistant, Abdel Sellou, which was also turned into a documentary, À la vie, à la mort, for French PDTV (Pure Digital Television).