Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy in 'The Intouchables'/Image © The Weinstein Co.
Here at Word & Film, our focus is so heavily trained on adaptations that, admittedly, we sometimes fall behind on movies not adapted from books and some gems get by us. But every once in a while, a non-adapted film comes onto our radar that is so touching, so affecting, and so poignant that we temporarily lose our minds and forget all things adaptation. “The Intouchables” is such a movie.
In 2011, a low-budget French film landed quietly in French theaters. The dark comedy, based on a true story about a wealthy quadriplegic and the man from the wrong side of the tracks he hires to become his caretaker, has since grossed $324 million worldwide, making it the largest-grossing French film ever. It’s just come to light, too, that France has submitted it for Oscar consideration for Best Foreign Film. “The Intouchables,” written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano and starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy, made its appearance on the Stateside film festival circuit in April 2012, and was introduced in limited U.S. theaters in May. It grossed less than $150k its opening weekend in the U.S. This writer first heard of it in August, and finally saw it in September, at which time it’s pulling in more than $11 million on weekends. Talk about a sleeper hit.
“The Intouchables” is the kind of movie you can’t stop talking about, that you must tell everyone who will listen to go see. It’s why we’re bringing you into the loop. Oh, and we’ve rationalized that “The Intouchables” is an adaptation of sorts: an adaptation of a true story. Though we worry about the fact that The Weinstein Company has bought American remake rights to the movie, we thank Harvey and company for bringing it to American theaters, as they also did with 2011’s “The Artist.” So here, without further ado, we present for your consideration the ten reasons we think you’ll fall in love with the film.
10. The soundtrack
The opening scene of ‘The Intouchables’ begins benignly enough: Two men in a slick black car, stuck in traffic in nighttime Paris. Suddenly, the car is off, from zero to lightning fast in seconds, set to Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi’s “Fly.” And we’re engrossed. From Earth Wind & Fire to Vivaldi, the music throughout the movie does what great soundtracks do: It sucks us in, keeps us engaged, orchestrates the tone, and helps develop the theme. (Listen to the soundtrack on Spotify here.)
9. “The Intouchables” is based on a true story
Films based on fiction are certainly so often brilliantly conceived, created, and executed, it’s true. But with a story like this, one so unlikely and so heartwarming in spite of — or more likely because of — its characters, whose own gritty truths threaten to break them, viewers are ultimately united in their restored faith in the ability of humanity and humor to keep even the worst-off afloat.
8. The subtitles
Following the summer blockbuster season, we’re all kind of burned out on the big’uns. Sure, “The Dark Knight Rises Again,” “The Hunger Games,” “Spider-Man” et al were fun for the season, but for everything they had in quality they had twice as much in big, banging, pulse-pounding entertainment. And ultimately, they were so, well, American. We don’t disparage these films for this; the escape from reality that they offer is one of the greatest things about the domestic box office. For a temporary foray into French filmmaking, however, and for the universality of humor and grace, spend 113 minutes reading along with “The Intouchables.”
7. Francois Cluzet
Francois Cluzet plays the role of the complex character, quadriplegic Philippe. He is so subtly perfect in this role, never evoking pity even when walking Driss through his history, of the tragedy that led him to take the risk that left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down. His nuanced performance has viewers holding their collective breath, waiting – will he laugh or explode? His acceptance of Driss is never naïve. And his smile and laughter believable through every moment of the film.
6. The irreverence
“The Intouchables” has been criticized for being racist in its depiction of a black man from the projects and also for poking fun at a physical disability (see: The humor, No. 5), two no-no’s in modern cinema. But such disparities in society do still exist; there are still rich white men who go to the opera and have a full staff at their disposal, and there are still black people living in poverty in the projects to whom the opera is completely foreign. Is this racist? Or are these pieces of the movie simply facts relevant to the story? And as for the fun-poking, the character of Philippe is terrified of pity; pity’s opposite is respect, and from this female’s perspective, male respect is so often expressed in humor. Ultimately, “The Intouchables” is among many things a film about acceptance, so somehow when these two aspects for which it’s been criticized should never work at all, they respectfully work here.
5. The humor
There are certain topics that are off limits in comedy. Sometimes, though, with varying degrees of success, comedians tread through those topics. And even as an audience laughs, it cringes. “The Intouchables” lets go with more than a few jokes that shouldn’t slide so seamlessly into the dialogue. But they do. Partially because of the context, partially because of our belief in the genuine nature of the character who makes them, partially because the target of the joke often laughs right along with the rest of us. There is nothing precious about the comedy in this darkly comic drama.
4. The point
Here’s what I took away from the film: People often come together because they need one another, but ultimately stay together because they like one another. It’s a beautiful way to fall into a relationship, platonic or otherwise, and allows for an ease in getting to know one another. There’s no awkward small talk; you’re here for a purpose. But then, suddenly, in between tasks and responsibilities, comes conversation. Philippe needed a caretaker; Driss needed a signature to receive his unemployment benefit. And before long, they need each other in ways they could never have predicted.
3. Omar Sy
Who is this man? And why are we only now hearing of him? Remember when, suddenly, everyone in America knew who Audrey Tatou was thanks to “Amelie”? Yeah, we want the same for Sy. In the meantime, we’ll update our Netflix queue with the only other U.S.-available film he’s appeared in, “Micmacs.”
2. The lack of sentimentality
Two main characters with tragedy-sodden stories come together under unlikely circumstances to grow into themselves despite their already advancing ages, and grow into a friendship of the purest kind. This has “sappy” written all over it, no? But thanks to the fabulous writing, directing, and acting, you will never roll your eyes, never feel like you know the story already, and as a result of all of this, you will never want it to end.
1. It’s fabulous filmmaking
In a nutshell, “The Intouchables” is brilliantly filmed. Co-directors and -writers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, after first learning of this story via a 2004 documentary, made the story their own. The grit of the projects and the lights of Paris, the juxtaposition between wealth and poverty, the perfectly choreographed narrowing gap between two characters who would never have come to know one another if not for their unique circumstances, and the music and timing choices all come together to make a perfect movie. This is one you shouldn’t let pass you by.