Funny and uplifting? A drama about a wealthy quadriplegic and his caretaker, who happens to be an ex-con from the projects? It sounds more like the weeper of the week. Or a crime scene waiting to happen.
But surprisingly, “The Intouchables,” which played in the shadow of “The Artist” in 2011, is a film that made me smile and laugh and thank God for life. Without getting into spoilers, can I just say how refreshing it was to watch a film about a physically challenged person that didn’t end on a total downer?
Francois Cluzet (“Tell No One,” “French Kiss”) and Omar Sy (“Micmacs”) turn in warm and winning performances, while directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have the good sense to toss caution to the wind and not worry about offending anyone—as if they took a cue from Driss (Sy), a Parisian ex-con from Senegal who is as blunt and irreverent as anyone can be with a rich man (Cluzet) confined to a wheelchair or bed, and who can’t move anything but his head.
Philippe’s staff tiptoes around his condition and bite their collective tongues when they see his adopted daughter getting away with murder—figuratively speaking, of course. But not Driss. He constantly makes jokes about the man’s situation and tells the master of the house that his daughter needs disciplining. What’s more, he flirts at every chance, always says what he’s thinking, and smiles and laughs as though he knows the secret of life is life itself.
Like an unlikely Pollyanna, this big, strong black man revives a household that had grown complacent and stodgy under the weight of personal tragedy. But the beauty of this film is that the tragedy is mostly submerged, a subtext that yields to comedy at every intersection. The script is full of a crisp exchanges that highlight cultural and attitudinal differences between this rich Frenchman and the street-smart immigrant caretaker he hires, and the contrast is what fuels the narrative.
Cluzet and Sy have great chemistry with each other. What’s more, Sy exudes a force-of-nature rawness that charms nearly every character his own comes in contact with. Casting directors seldom get mentioned in reviews, but the minor characters really help sell this story—based, by the way, on a real-life relationship—so I feel compelled to tip my hat to Gigi Akoka. The direction and Mathieu Vadepied’s cinematography also stand out because the shots capture the mood in every scene, yet the camera looks away during crucial moments so that what’s onscreen is comparatively understated.
Driss balks at using gloves to help his employer with toilet matters, for example, but we never see anything graphic that would pull us away from the comedy or the empathy that we feel for Philippe. And when a neighbor parks in front of the courtyard exit, blocking the vehicle, the camera shifts to Philippe’s reaction rather than showing Driss roughing the guy up. We see the start of it, but not the finish. All of that is important in creating a tone and atmosphere that reinforces the film’s humor and humanity.
“The Intouchables,” which is based on the #1 international best-selling book You Changed My Life, is rated R for language and drug (marijuana) use.
“The Intouchables” looks terrific in HD, with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio picture full of detail in every shot. There are very few dark scenes, and so the picture looks bright and full of nicely saturated colors in every frame.
The featured audio is a French DTS-HD MA 5.1, with subtitles available in English, English SDH and Spanish. But the film is so captivating that you hardly even notice that you’re having to read the lines to understand them.
Alas, those shots of the real Driss and Philippe in the end credits remain a teaser, because there’s no behind-the-scenes or book-to-film documentary to shed light on any dark areas. There’s only a relative handful of deleted scenes, none of which made you feel as if they deserved to be in the film.
“The Intouchables” is such an effective, endearing film it’s hard to imagine that France's official submission wasn't among the Oscar finalists this year. But, as the characters in the film remind us, life is full of surprises. Grin, bear it, grin some more . . . and move on.