“The Intouchables””, a 2011 French film that has received tremendous acclaim over the past year, will be premiering in Phoenix starting on Friday, June 1. Starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy, the movie tells a story of the relationship built between two dichotomous characters: one a wealthy French aristocrat in his fifties and the other, a twenty-something Senegalese man who lives in the projects of Paris.
Based on a true story, “The Intouchables” was written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. With good reason, it has become the second most popular title in French cinematic history.
After the main character, Philippe, is involved in a paragliding accident, he sustains a spinal cord injury and is paralyzed from the neck down. The on-screen story begins years after the accident occurs. Philippe has trouble finding a personal care attendant who can last even one week in that position, given its demands.
One early scene brings the audience into the interviewing process, with Philippe in search of yet another new attendant. The applicants mostly have adequate qualifications, but the majority appears overly sterile and clinical, as opposed to entertaining and enthusiastic. One could argue that these latter qualities are not the first things people look for in attendants, but personality type can be an important factor, as it was for Philippe.
Enter Driss, who initially only applied for the job in order to continue receiving a welfare check. He had no intention of taking the interview process seriously, listing the band Kool and the Gang among his references.
The viewer immediately gets a sense of his demeanor when he storms into the interview room, ahead of the person whose name had actually been called, saying that he was tired of waiting. In that moment, everything about Driss indicated his strong and forceful nature. All he wants is to have his papers signed in order to make sure he gets his government benefit, but this display of bravado catches Philippe’s attention. While others have reservations about hiring Driss, Philippe wants to at least give him a trial work period.
Unprepared for the rigor and ultra-personal nature of the job, Driss isn’t sure he wants to continue after the first day. However, facing a trying home life, Driss stays mainly because he gets his own space in Philippe’s house; a bedroom and bathroom to call his own trumps having to share these things with multiple family members, most of whom are small children. Throughout the course of the film, however, Philippe and Driss grow together through both light-hearted and serious situations, and are eventually able to relate not as employer and employee, but as true friends. A bond is formed that bridges whatever differences exist between the two, physically or otherwise.
The most impactful scene, in my view, takes place at night when Philippe begins to experience a panic attack and phantom pains in his legs. Driss, who is sleeping in the next room with a monitor next to the bed, rushes to Philippe’s room to find him gasping for breath and saying that he needs air. Driss lifts him into his wheelchair, straps him in and scrambles to get outside as quickly as possible.
At 4 a.m., with Philippe’s breathing having returned to normal, the two roam the streets of Paris, talking about a variety of subjects. It seems it is at this moment when Driss finally begins to understand the full scope of Philippe’s condition and his struggle. This is also a turning point at which working for Philippe, in Driss’ words, becomes “more than a job”.
Another key scene is when Philippe is talking with one of his business partners about Driss’s questionable past. The business partner says that “these street guys have no pity,” referring to Driss. Philippe responds that Driss’ approach – that of “no pity” – is exactly what he is seeking in an attendant.
Examples of this abound throughout “The Intouchables”. Rather than treating Philippe like a patient, Driss sometimes forgets that Philippe cannot take calls without someone holding the phone to his ear. He jokes with Philippe in one scene to not “be so lazy” and to throw a snowball back during a rather one-sided fight, while they both laugh. And perhaps most significantly, Driss challenges Philippe in the social arena, encouraging him to pursue a potential relationship.
In short, Driss sees Philippe as a person with the same wishes, desires and emotions as anyone else. It is a symbiotic relationship, with each character providing something that the other lacks. On the surface, it appears that Driss gets needed employment while Philippe receives the physical help he requires.
As the movie progresses, however, the audience realizes that the connection between the two is much deeper. Both characters provide the other with new challenges and goals to reach. Cluzet talked about the notion of pity in the film, and specifically why Driss doesn’t feel sorry for Philippe.
“[The directors] understood perfectly that the only things Philippe cannot stand are pity and compassion. He doesn’t want to be summed up by his condition since he doesn’t impose it on others,” Cluzet said. “Moreover, each member of this duo has a handicap. For Driss, [it’s one type]. For Philippe, [it’s] physical. That’s why Driss doesn’t feel sorry for Philippe. He doesn’t pity him and that’s what makes [Driss] so appealing in his eyes.”
The characters of Philippe (Cluzet) and Driss (Sy) are based on Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his attendant Abdel Sellou, whom the directors discovered after watching their story in the documentary “A La Vie, A La Mort”. There are differences between the real people and the characters who are portrayed on screen, but the movie attempts to stay as true as possible to the personalities of both Sellou and Pozzo di Borgo. Perhaps the most significant difference is that Sellou is not from Senegal, but instead is Algerian by birth.
But for what liberties the directors take in these terms, the film considers the realities of disability seriously, in my opinion. Nakache and Toledano, along with Cluzet and Sy travelled to Morocco, where Pozzo di Borgo now lives, before starting the movie for what Sy called an “integration course”. It was then that the actors were able to gather ideas for how to most accurately portray their characters. For Cluzet, who has been acting for more than three decades in Europe, the task was quite difficult. He discussed the challenge he experienced in a question and answer session.
“I’m an actor who isn’t fond of dialogue and who loves to act silently,” he said. “That means I usually need my body to express things in the place of words! But, obviously, in this case, there could be no body.”
Since Pozzo di Borgo is a real person, Cluzet said it was easier to maintain a character that held true to the Philippe he met in Morocco than if the character had been created in the directors’ imaginations.
In a publicity interview with the directors, Toledano noted the important role humor plays in the film. He said that in the face of such a grave and serious situation, Pozzo di Borgo was clear that keeping a light heart was integral to his survival.
“He told us, ‘If you make this film, it has to be funny. Because this story has to be treated with humor,’” Toledano said. “We were delighted and reassured to hear that.”
Billed as a drama, this film certainly contains a fair amount of serious subjects. But in truth, while “The Intouchables” shows you the difficulties that Philippe faces daily, it hardly dwells on his challenges. As a viewer, what I ended up focusing on was Philippe’s immense intellectual capacity, his ability to maintain a degree of levity and his utter humanity.
Initially, I had reservations about seeing “The Intouchables”, only because in my experience, such works that involve disability often miss the mark. Either, they make the characters with disabilities overly sympathetic to a point where the movie lacks authenticity, or movies manage to conflate physical challenges with other impairments that are not realistic. To my eye, “The Intouchables” largely avoided both pitfalls.
Undoubtedly, there are some things that this movie could have improved upon. The audience is right to question whether the average person with a disability, especially one as severe as Philippe’s, could afford to have multiple people working for him in various capacities. Furthermore, Philippe’s wealth is displayed through the ornate décor in his home, as well as by his multiple fancy sports cars, which the average person – disabled or not – does not possess.
One must remember, however, that while some elements of the story are likely exaggerated for effect, the inspiration for “The Intouchables” is a real story. From my viewpoint, this movie is not meant to depict the experience for people with disabilities in general, but rather, it explores the specific circumstances of one person and his connection to the people around him.
Some amount of room must remain in the audience’s reaction for a suspension of disbelief, as it should for any film. But, as a person with a disability, I believe “The Intouchables” held as closely as possible to the actual daily experience of having a disability, and while comedy was achieved throughout, the movie managed to treat this subject with respect and overall accuracy.
The cast and crew of “The Intouchables” created a film deserving of the seven International awards it has received, including Best Picture at the César Awards, the Oscars of French cinema. Sy also garnered a great deal of individual attention for his performance, including being named Best Actor for breakout star at the César Awards.
Other cast members include Anne Le Ny as Yvonne, Audrey Fleurot as Magalie and Alba Gaïa Bellugi as Philippe’s teenage daughter, Elisa.
The Weinstein Company, the same group that released the 2011 Oscar winner for Best Picture, “The Artist,” distributes the film. “The Intouchables” will be playing at the Camelview Theater in Phoenix beginning on Friday, June 1.
Chris Carr is a graduate student in digital media and online journalism at Arizona State University and a media intern with Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL) in Phoenix.