Sentimental buddy comedy reveals our common humanity
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Inspired by the true story of Abdel Sellou’s memoir “You Changed My Life,” “The Intouchables” dramatizes the unlikely relationship that develops between Driss (Omar Sy), an African immigrant living in the ghettos of Paris, and Philippe (François Cluzet), an aristocratic quadriplegic seeking an attendant who will care for his frail body, but treat him as a man. At first glance, the film, from the award-winning writing and directing duo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, feels like a riff on “Scent of a Woman” with racial differences taking over for the soft-pedaled class dynamic.
Yet, to reduce “The Intouchables” to its black and white core, American audiences run the risk of reflecting upon it only through the narrow racial lens of our history. Critical responses, especially by African American writers, tend to find fault with what seems like a stereotypical rendering of the relationship between Driss and Philippe, but to do so points to a refusal to think beyond our experiences. Today’s global perspective offers a host of complex immigration issues where nothing is simply black and white.
Instead, I prefer to examine what it means for Driss to treat Philippe as more than an invalid. The film struggles with the treatment of disability, a clear reflection of our own difficulties in the real world. We talk about respect and acceptance of difference, and in our language we contort ourselves into pretzels in order to not offend, but in all that, where is the concern for the dignity of life and the living?
Driss is raw and uneducated, a man of the harsh streets, but we see how his matter-of-fact way of dealing with people and situations intrigues Philippe. During the interview process for an attendant, time and again, applicants tip toe around, both in word and deed, hoping to impress Philippe and his staff. There’s lots of humor, which jumps happily into broad hijinks for those in the cheap seats.
Once Driss settles into the job though and we are given the chance to see him interact with Philippe, degrees of depth develop. Driss learns the details of caring for someone with disabilities and has to become more disciplined in his approach. It goes without saying that he brings a sense of wonder and magic, a lightness of being to the house that is infectious not only for Philippe, but also everyone else who comes into his orbit.
However, Philippe wants more. He wants to be seen as vital and whole, and Driss seemingly does so unconsciously. He recognizes that Philippe longs for a loving relationship with another woman and uses his common street sense to help him get back out into the dating world. When Philippe fights his demons at night, it is Driss who offers him an escape; late-night rides to clear his head and provide the adrenaline rush that he lost in the accident that stripped him of his independence. Driss helps us to see that Philippe is not as broken as his body. Thanks to their buddy dynamic, we come to realize that Philippe’s spirit is actually stronger than it possibly was before.
Sy has earned accolades and critical hosannas for his performance alongside Cluzet, as well as an unfair share of blame for buffoonery in support of racial stereotypes. Much more of that will arise as the frenzy to create a Hollywood remake hits high gear. To remain faithful to the essence of Nakache and Toledano’s story though, Hollywood would be wise to focus on the humanity of the characters rather than merely the color of their skin or their country of origin.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com