Intouchables (2011)

There are movies that challenge the mind, and there are those that nourish the heart. Of the latter, we have no dearth, but it is the rare nugget that manages to outshine all other dregs that exit film studios by the bulk. This is not to say that a film can’t be both heartwarming and intellectually stimulating (as Hugo proves), but only that we have come to expect certain things from certain films. Reading TIME’s piece on Intouchables, I expected a poignant story of an inspiring friendship, of working-class racial prejudice, and how a genuine bond can overcome such differences—which is exactly what I got, except realer and a lot more fun.

It can feel too contrived: a poor black man enters into a wealthy tetraplegic’s service and changes both their lives. But it’s true—at least up until that part. Based on a real-life story, Intouchables stars Omar Sy as the brash, loud-mouthed Driss and François Cluzet as the disabled and lovelorn Philippe. Both of them are “untouchable” in the sense that one is a social outcast and the other is detached from normal life. But it is not merely this similarity that binds them together. Beneath the bets and gags, you can see that there’s something genuine there, that the two have formed a bond that—incomprehensible as it may seem—remains wholly palpable. The paragliding scene encapsulates all this splendidly. Thousands of meters above ground, neither Driss nor François are impeded by any limitation. Up there, they experience momentary freedom—from societal expectations, bitter histories, physical restrictions. Up there, they are simply two friends gliding in the wind.

Cluzet plays his part capably, but the spotlight undoubtedly falls on Sy. Exuding natural charm, he delivers in all his scenes and shines where it matters. It’s a pleasure to watch him because he enjoys himself tremendously. It’s hard not to get caught up in that energy. Despite its obvious potential for melodrama, Intouchables chooses a different direction: fun. Not the good, clean Marley & Me kind (of which we have seen enough, but always fall for anyway). Driss and François are regularly seen sharing marijuana joints, hiring Asian hookers, and exchanging borderline offensive jokes. In between, they take time to venture into each other’s worlds. Driss listens to classical music and Philippe lip-syncs to groovy hits from Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s an astonishing friendship.

While Driss and Philippe’s relationship strays from the usual, banlieue residents apparently earn a more stereotypical approach. As far as we know, Driss’ family includes a breadwinner, a delinquent, a good daughter, and several younger children. It bothers me that the setup is too formulaic, but at the same time I acknowledge that real life offers many such situations. Either way, Intouchables possesses enough merits to attract a wide audience, and that it has. Buoyed by a wave of good humor, it became the highest-grossing film in a non-English language, breaking the previous record set by Spirited Away (my favorite Miyazaki). Although I’m skeptical about its success, I understand the movie’s appeal. Along with its feel-good quality, I appreciate Intouchables for taking a much-abused subgenre and spinning it into a success. At the very least, that’s much more than we can say for other contenders.

‘Tell me Driss, why do you think people are interested in art?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s a business?’ ‘No. It’s because it’s the only thing one leaves behind.’

‘Listen to this. Where can you find a tetraplegic?’ ‘Where can you… I don’t know.’ ‘Where you left him.’

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