Movie review by Greg Carlson
An optimistic, opposites-attract bromance polished to the kind of high-gloss sheen perfected by and valued in Hollywood, French box office smash “The Intouchables” defies viewers to resist its charming fantasy exploring the relationship between a fabulously wealthy white quadriplegic and the streetwise black immigrant hired to provide around-the-clock personal care. Based on Abdel Sellou’s non-fiction account “You Changed My Life,” the adaptation alters the ethnicity of the assistant from Algerian to Senegalese, a change that has been noted by critics who defend as well as critics who denounce the portrayal of the camaraderie between the movie’s principal odd couple, Driss (played by Omar Sy, the first black actor to be awarded a Cesar) and Phillippe (played by Francois Cluzet).
Several prominent film reviewers including David Denby have accused “The Intouchables” of reinforcing racial stereotypes, and the movie does not shy away from the well-worn thematic construction in which an attuned but economically impoverished or working class black man guides a wealthy white grouch to an understanding of fuller personhood (as in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Bucket List”). Writing for “Slate,” Daphnee Denis defends the film against the charges of racism, developing an argument that insists French audiences see past the master/servant relationship and the old cliches. Denis additionally observes that “The Intouchables” operates as a political allegory, concluding her essay with the statement, “White France is paralyzed; immigrant France has become its arms and legs,” a thought that gives the film an awful lot of credit.
“The Intouchables” is filtered through the experiences of Driss, a strategy that allows the filmmakers a premium opportunity to present the protagonist’s wonderment at his employer’s vast wealth as automobile/clothing/real estate porn that can be simultaneously ogled by the filmgoer. Although it may have made for a much stronger and more balanced view of the class disparities between Phillippe and Driss, we spend as little time as possible inside the crowded, lower class neighborhood that Driss escapes in favor of his new boss’s opulent, gated mansion. Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano mirror a shot of Driss folded into his cramped shower with one in which he luxuriates in the massive private bath provided as part of his employment. The juxtaposition is as obvious as the contrast between Phillippe’s interest in opera and Driss’s passion for the R&B sound of Earth, Wind & Fire.
The chemistry between Sy and Cluzet is terrific, which alleviates any resentment the ninety-nine percent may have when peeking in on the world of a man who can spend the annual salary of a middle class professional on a single painting. The filmmakers insist that we thrill to Driss’s literal escape into a reality that puts him behind that wheel of a Maserati Quattroporte and outfits him in a hand-tailored suit. The tactic nearly succeeds, although a half-hearted subplot concerning Driss’s family occasionally pops up to remind everyone what’s at stake. “The Intouchables” is easily and accurately described as a “feel good” movie, and more often than not, it reinforces the idea that it’s much better to have the problems of a rich person than the ones experienced by the poor.