If there’s one thing that the success of the French film The Intouchables proves—and it was something of a sensation in Europe last year—it’s that people like seeing love stories on screen, particularly those where two unlikely people come together and find that, against all odds, they complete each other. The fact that The Intouchables is a platonic love story, about two straight men, is irrelevant to this equation. Indeed, the film it often reminded me most of was—wait for it—Pretty Woman.
Strapping young Driss has arrived at an enormous mansion to apply for the job of caretaker to elegant Philippe, a paralyzed aristocrat. Only, he’s not there for the job, merely for the sign-off on his unemployment sheet, so he can collect his benefits.
But Philippe sees something in Driss—that first spark of attraction, you might say—and coaxes him back, luring the nearly homeless young man with the prospect of an enormous bedroom, luxurious bath, and Philippe’s pretty assistant (Audrey Fleurot), whom Driss is sweet on.
Philippe likes Driss because of his youthful spirit, his complete lack of sensitivity to Philippe’s affliction (he makes jokes like “How do you know where to find a quadriplegic? Exactly where you left him”), and his blunt queries into Philippe’s sexual functionality (much is made of Philippe finding the ear to be an erogenous zone).
Slowly, inevitably (by movie protocol at least), they begin to trust and like each other and become friends.
Despite the fact that The Intouchables is “based on a true story,” I found it to be as formulaic, as predictable, as any fictional film. It’s pure fantasy wish fulfillment—Driss, as it turns out, doesn’t just possess a secret heart of gold, he’s a talented artist, as well—and it has some of the rhythms and notes of a sitcom. (Not once but twice do we have a scene where Driss adamantly claims he’ll never do something—first, putting circulatory stockings on Philippe and later, paragliding—only to cut to the next scene where a grudging Driss is doing that very thing. That’s sitcom editing, folks— yes, even from France.)
The film also fails in fleshing out the characters beyond each other. Philippe has a daughter, who’s supposed to be a spoiled brat, but she just seems like a normal teenager to me. And there’s a back-story with Driss’s large, poverty-stricken family that never develops.
Nonetheless, the film has a spirit about it that is undeniable. It starts with the two leads, who are quite magical together. Newcomer Omar Sy is a revelation—loose-limbed and preternaturally handsome, with a charisma that positively radiates off the screen. And longtime French leading man Francois Cluzet is great, as ever. He will inevitably remind American viewers of Dustin Hoffman, not only do they look alike, but they have the same wry whisper of a smile—and the actor has an enormous dignity and grace about him, even without the benefit of the movement of his arms and legs.
I think writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano also made a rather genius choice in having Driss mock Philippe’s paralysis—it’s the one thing that keeps the film from slipping into mawkishness. (There’s a very funny scene that involves Driss shaving the beard of a helpless Philippe into all sorts of comic configurations.)
There’s a moment in The Intouchables that perfectly encapsulates its own sense of playful irreverence. The very cultured Philippe take Driss, who’s a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire, to the opera. Now, we’ve all seen this scene before, notably in Pretty Woman. We know what will happen: Driss will be so moved by the performance, he will be brought to tears. But instead, Driss takes one look at the tenor, enrobed in some sort of ludicrous tree costume, and bursts out laughing. Then Philippe starts laughing too, much to dismay of their fellow patrons in the box. You’ll laugh, too, and—if you allow yourself—fully enjoy the offbeat “love story” between these two men.