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Indie Snapshot: The Intouchables

by Ethan Alter May 25, 2012 5:58 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>The Intouchables</i>

Male bonding, Gallic style

Lest you think that Hollywood has a monopoly on the "Magical Negro" figure, the award-winning French hit The Intouchables illustrates that cinematic stereotypes can easily cross borders. Granted, the movie's version of this unfortunate character type, a Senegalese immigrant named Driss (Omar Sy, who won a César -- the French equivalent of an Oscar -- for his performance) doesn't exactly conform to the model popularized by Morgan Freeman's Hoke Colburn or Will Smith's Bagger Vance. He's brash and outspoken instead of stately and reserved and, initially at least, he isn't the least bit interested in helping to improve the life of his designated white friend, wealthy paraplegic Philippe (François Cluzet).

An emotionally distant, easily frustrated man, Philippe has a revolving door of caregivers, few of whom are able to stay on the job for longer than a month or so. Driss is one of the latest applicants for the unenviable position of spending time with this crank -- as well as taking care of such basic duties as bathing and dressing him -- and he couldn't desire the job any less. He only turns up for the interview in the first place to get a form signed that will secure his unemployment benefits. But Philippe unexpectedly takes a liking to this bold, fearless individual and hires him on a trial basis (over the objections of his staff and friends) giving him a place to live in his sizeable mansion and a healthy stipend.

You can probably guess where this odd couple relationship is going and you'd be exactly right. Just like Hoke and Miss Daisy and Bagger and Rannulph, Driss teaches Philippe how to loosen up, let his proverbial hair down and enjoy life instead of hiding from it. In return, Philippe gives Driss a sense of responsibility and adds some structure to his previously aimless life. They further solidify their brotherly bond through such stunts as paragliding through the French Alps and hooking Philippe up with the hot woman he's been exchanging letters with. Eventually, everyone in Philippe's house comes to embrace Driss and his unconventional ways, casting off their stuffy, fuddy-duddy attitudes and shaking their groove thangs to the driving beat of Driss's favorite musical act, Earth Wind & Fire. (Expect that to be changed to Jay-Z for the inevitable American remake.)

Conspicuously not mentioned amongst any of this is the racial and class divide between the two main characters. That's obviously by design; writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano are primarily out to tell a story about how friendship bridges all cultural and societal gaps. (It's worth noting that The Intouchables is based on a true story and the real Driss and Philippe appear in video footage during the closing credits.) It's a sweet sentiment and Sy and Cluzet are so appealing in these roles that you want to buy into the rosy, harmonious picture of male bonding that the film presents. But reality is rarely that simple and The Intouchables does both the audience and the men whose story inspired the movie a disservice by studiously avoiding the larger conflicts that can block the road to peace, love and understanding. In trying to tell the story of an honest, sincere friendship, the movie comes off as an entirely dishonest and insincere.

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