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Movie Curiosities: The Intouchables

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I had every intention of skipping The Intouchables. The trailer sold me an overly saccharine movie loaded with cliches. A typical "buddy" film about two diametrically opposed stereotypes who learn to become best friends, with a bit of preaching about economic and racial equality thrown in. Even the title is bland and pretentious! Regardless, the movie has picked up quite a bit of critical acclaim, and it came very highly recommended by one of my correspondents. I decided to see it after some deliberation, figuring that it had to be better than The Watch.

The film opens with Driss (Omar Sy), who's driving a very fancy sports car with Phillippe (Francois Cluzet) in the passenger seat. Tired of waiting in traffic, Driss starts driving like a madman without any objections from his passenger. The cops show up. A hundred euros says Driss can lose them. He loses the bet. Double or nothing: They get an escort. After a shouting match with the police, Driss points out that Phillippe is a quadriplegic and they were rushing to the ER. On cue, Phillippe starts having a seizure. The police cave under pressure and escort them to the ER.

Oh, how this movie starts off on the right foot, let me count the ways.

First of all, the music in this film is aggressively good. From start to finish, the score beats its audience about the head with how wonderfully beautiful it is. The soundtrack is every bit as solid, with wonderful classical arrangements punctuated by songs from Earth, Wind & Fire. Case in point: "September" plays over the opening credits, as Driss and Phillippe are being escorted to the ER by the police they've just duped. I submit to you that for setting a fun tone and getting people in the mood for a good time, precious few songs will do the trick like "September."

Secondly, there's the scenario of the prologue itself. Stories about getting out of speeding tickets are fun. That's just a simple fact. It's universally accepted that nobody likes to get pulled over by the police. It's a situation that everybody's been in and nobody likes. As a result, there's a great vicarious enjoyment in hearing about people who are clever enough to get out of that situation scot-free, particularly in some humorous manner.

This brings me to the third point: The characters. It's been said that a friend will get you out of jail, but a best friend will be sitting next to you, going "That was fucking awesome!" What, then, about two friends who have a routine to fool traffic cops?

It's patently obvious -- not only in their dialogue but in how the dialogue is delivered -- that these two are very good friends who know each other inside and out. This is all the more interesting, as one of them is a wealthy white invalid and the other looks to all the world like a young black man from the slums. This automatically creates a level of interest, as it inspires the question of how these two met and how they got to this point.

The rest of the movie is about answering that exact question.

At the start of the narrative, Phillippe is interviewing candidates to be his new nurse/assistant. We're treated to a montage of candidates (all white, I might add), all of whom have pretty much the same qualifications and each one more boring than the next. That's not to say that they're two-dimensional, just that they're the type destined to fail upwards at some hospital or nursing home. But then Driss barges in.

Driss, as you may expect, is a man living in poverty with at least a dozen young relatives to provide for. But here's a twist: He doesn't beg for the job. In fact, he makes a point of bombing the interview on purpose. Basically, he says "Look, we all know that I'm not qualified for this position. Just sign this piece of paper to prove that the interview happened, so I can take it to the government for my unemployment benefits." The point is made that Driss is not the kind of guy who takes bullshit, nor is he the type to stand on ceremony.

Fortunately, for all of his skills at taking advantage of the system, Driss isn't terribly bright. As a result, Phillippe is easily able to manipulate Driss into taking the job.

At this point, the first question anyone would be asking is "Why?" Well, there are actually a surprising number of reasons why. First of all, we learn quickly that this position has a very high turnover rate. Phillippe very rarely has a nurse to last longer than a week or two. So, if Driss somehow turns out to be a stellar caretaker, so much the better. If he quits or gets fired after only a few days, none the worse. Secondly, Driss already has a great deal of experience in caring for his younger relatives. He's extremely qualified to dress, bathe, and feed this person, even if he doesn't realize it. Granted, Driss isn't so good with responsibility, but that's teachable. Thirdly, as Phillippe himself points out, he and Driss actually have a lot in common, as they're both completely dependent on others: Driss with his government aid and Phillippe with his doctors and assistants. It's a fascinating comparison. Fourthly -- again, as Phillippe points out -- a quadriplegic doesn't need a nurse quite as badly as he needs a good set of arms and legs. Driss has plenty of muscle, and he's not shy about using it.

Perhaps most importantly, Phillippe doesn't need someone to treat him with kid gloves and cater impersonally to his every whim. He's already got a whole staff of people who do that. Driss brings an unpredictable kind of energy to Phillippe's life. He's not afraid to joke around at Phillippe's expense, but he'll still come through when it matters. Cliched? Sure. But Sy plays Driss with such a sweet and playful sense of humor that it works.

A huge crux of the movie lies in how Driss calls it like he sees it. If he finds some aspect of high-class life to be ludicrous, he'll talk about it at great length no matter who's around to listen. He won't apologize for it, either. At the same time, however, it's worth remembering that for all the truth in his words, Driss is still the dumbest person in the room. He's perfectly capable of taking the piss out of Phillippe and his friends, but they have no problem taking the piss out of him right back.

It's this kind of "check and balance" system between Driss' viewpoint and Phillippe's way of life that really powers the film. This film is at its best when they're testing each other, with one trying to pull the other further and further away from comfort just to see how far the other is able to go. Sometimes Driss gets his way, sometimes Phillippe comes out victorious. Either way, it leads to a great amount of character development for the both of them.

(Side note: If you're not familiar with the concept of a "Gilligan cut," you will be after seeing this picture.)

Perhaps the best example of this is the film's paragliding scene. Phillippe improbably finds a way to fly, in spite of his condition, and he brings a highly reluctant Driss along with him. The result is a spectacular scene, not only in terms of character development but in cinematography as well. Aside from a few brief moments when the camera's shadow can kinda be seen, the sequence is shot in such an immersive way that I was left wondering how it was done. Masterful work.

It's a very fortunate thing that Driss and Phillippe are so compelling to watch, because everything around them is kinda boring. Take Phillippe's penpal, for example. Though she advances Phillippe's developments in some interesting ways, the penpal herself is not even remotely interesting. The same could be said of Driss' relatives, who are wholly unremarkable save for how they affect Driss.

Then we have the subplots that are essentially worthless. Two of Phillippe's other employees fall in love with each other, and no one cares. Driss finds a love interest in another of Phillipe's assistants (Magalie, played by Audrey Fleurot), and she seems to take delight in spurning Driss' sexual advances. Though this storyline does end with an amusing twist, the "loves her/hates him" dynamic got very boring very quickly. We also have Phillippe's adoptive daughter, Elisa, played by Alba Gaia Bellugi. She's an annoying spoiled brat who's driven to outrageous angst by some punk she's fallen in "love" with. Cry me a fucking river.

Still, the booby prize for worthless storylines goes to the Faberge egg. It's established to be something extremely important, in spite of the fact that it has precisely zero relevance to the plot and is all but completely forgotten after it's mentioned. Granted, the storyline does get a conclusion, but it's only a tiny little beat at the end that does absolutely nothing except remind us of the ornament we forgot all about roughly an hour prior.

Come to think of it, the ending as a whole was very lacking. The climax held zero tension, the ending resolved some storylines I didn't care about, and the film dragged its feet getting from one point to the other. It feels like the climax was an end in itself, forced in there solely because the film is almost over and you simply can't end a film without a climax (see also: Beginners).

Luckily, all of these problems take up so little screen time that they're really just nitpicks. The lion's share of screen time is precisely where it should be: On Driss and Phillippe.

Last but not least, I'm afraid that I have to talk about the film's racial aspect. I don't normally like to address such things in my reviews, but it's kind of unavoidable here, since the film claims to be based on a true story. In truth, Phillippe Pozzo di Borgo's assistant was named Abdell Sellou, an Algerian-born man living in a lower-class suburb. The filmmakers purposefully reinvented him to be a Senegalese man from the slums, and even went so far as to change his name. Additionally, there's the unavoidable fact that everyone in Phillippe's social circle is white, while Driss' companions in the ghetto are almost entirely black.

With all of this in mind, accusations of racism are somewhat difficult to deny. On the other hand, it's possible that the French aren't quite as sensitive to racial issues as we are in the States. It's also worth remembering that this is ultimately a story about two people coming to treat each other as friends and equals, in spite of their many, many differences.

Mostly, though, I forgive the racism accusations for one simple reason: I cared about Driss and Phillippe. They felt like real people to me, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with them. Compare that to racial stereotypes, which are unpleasant and fake by their design. Additionally, since the movie took such outrageous liberties with the real-life story (in spite of all protestations to the contrary) it's easier to imagine that this is a work of fiction. And that's exactly the way I would have it.

Intimate character dramas -- far more than any other genre of film -- are all about the illusion of reality. It's about creating people entirely out of thin air, if only for a few hours. It's about making characters so nuanced, so three-dimensional, so totally lifelike that you forget they're purely fictional. It's about leaving the theater with the feeling that you've just met someone, and glad that you did. This movie succeeded in that regard, and that's enough for me to look over its storytelling flaws.

Though The Intouchables stumbles, it never falls. The story is weakened at times, the supporting cast is generally worthless, and the racial overtones are tough to overlook, but the core relationship is rock-solid. Major kudos are due to Omar Sy, Francois Cluzet, and co-writers/co-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Together, they crafted two very sweet and very funny characters whose interplay and mutual development were a joy to watch.

Throw in some masterfully constructed set pieces and jaw-droppingly awesome music, and you've got a fine character drama indeed. Recommended.

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