Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s latest film is a fascinating character study that approaches many of the themes handled in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And while it doesn’t quite match the dramatic depth or raw honesty of that film, The Intouchables largely succeeds in its marriage of emotion and humor. As a sylistic, feel-good flick with strong individual elements, I can see why The Intouchables was an easy choice for last year’s César Award ceremony.
The film tells the story of Driss (Omary Sy), a young guy from the streets of Paris, who finds himself caring for a wealthy tetraplegic art connoisseur named Philippe (François Cluzet). As their relationship begins to unfold, they find that their mutual companionship is far more valuable than the physical services they can provide one another. The premise if heartwarming, even if it is a bit cliché.
Still, Nakache and Toledano manage to coax out some incredible performances from Sy and Cluzet which keep the movie afloat. Driss in particular shines as the looser, more humorous of the two; his willingness to break the stifling conventions of “higher society” makes for some very funny crowd-pleasing gags. What is most compelling about these two characters, however, is how each of their drastically different stories about life in Paris weave together to comment on two very different aspects of the same world. And indeed, the story of the highfalutin Philippe does come to a moving ending that directly ties to his relationship with Driss. On the other hand, Driss’ tale comes to a quiet, unremarkable, and unexplained ending which keeps his arc from having a real sense of purpose.
And in the greater context of the film, it is unfortunate that Driss’ story gets shortchanged. Looking back to Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché, everything from French-Algerian relations to racial tension is explored. In one small scene in that film, a black biker nearly hits Daniel Auteuil’s character. Their very brief but heated exchange says more about the underlying issues in France than all of The Intouchables, which is too bad considering the opportunity to take a risk and go for poignancy is certainly there.
I think this speaks to the general failings of The Intouchables – the way it handles its potentially touchy subject matter is a microcosm of how Nakache and Toledano approached the film’s structure. The film opens with a visually and aurally beautiful scene which eloquently introduces us to both Driss and Philippe; the way the imagery is presented and how perfectly the dialogue comes across feels like the beginnings of a truly avant garde film. But by the time the audience is called back to this gorgeous opening sequence, little stylistic or substantive precedence has been given for their debut scene together. This is because the audience is aware at the film’s end that the plot has fallen into a by-wrote formula that so many other movies succumb to, and this stands in stark contrast to its intriguing introductory scene.
As aforementioned, The Intouchables does eschew its potential for mediocrity through the strength of its lead actors, but that underlying feeling of “been there, done that” is nevertheless pervasive. Reservations aside, I would certainly recommend the film. It’s funny and it’s sweet, and its heart is in the right place – my disappointment comes simply at its unwillingness to go that extra mile.
Verdict: Movie Win