Netflix has beefed up their foreign language film offerings lately, adding within the past few months a new cache of hundreds of popular films from around the globe. One such movie is The Intouchables (no, not the French re-make of The Untouchables starring a French Kevin Costner) a 2011 French film directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. In fact, by sheer numbers The Intouchables is the Mona Lisa of foreign language films, grossing $281 million worldwide, more than any other non-English movie in history.
The movie’s worldwide success raises the question: how did this film about the true story of wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his underqualified, rough around the edges, ex-con caretaker Abdel Sellou shine above the rest? For starters, the original story itself is fascinating. An old wealthy man taking a chance on a young criminal as the man responsible for his own wellbeing is intriguing, but, in most cases, would seem too far-fetched. In the case of The Intouchables, the story is practically completely true, even when it seems overblown.
For instance, the opening scene where Philippe fakes a seizure in order to excuse Driss (whose name is changed in the movie, one of the few variations from real life) is not only something that happened once, as it does in the movie, but is, in fact, a recurring instance for the two friends. Thus, in this case, the movie actually downplays the absurdity of real life, something you rarely see in Hollywood.
Everything about Philippe and Driss is different: their age, their race, their socio-economic status, their tastes in music, and their health conditions. Their differences, however, are exactly what brings them together and allows them to develop such a close friendship. Philippe has enough wealthy, overly caring people to share his love for classical music and art who will oftentimes pity him. With Driss, he gets no pity and, in fact, rarely even any sympathy. This lack of pity from Driss becomes a major theme in the movie, which has met with some criticism, as the movie dares to forego that sympathetic look at Philippe and his condition. In this sense, the movie is quite opposite from the Spanish film Mar Adentro starring Javier Bardem about the true story of fellow quadriplegic, Ramon Sampedro, who fought 30 years for his own right to die.
With Philippe you get no self-pity and no death wish, which is why Driss is so important to him. When he is with Driss, which is nearly always, Philippe can be a real person. He can joke around, even at his own expense. Such jokes made by Driss as “where can you find a quadriplegic?” – “where you left him” are enough to make any viewer feel uncomfortable, but, to Philippe, it’s not only funny, but refreshing.
Driss is not only refreshing to Philippe, though. In fact, he livens up the household quite a bit, playing matchmaker for the housekeeper Yvonne, flirting with assistant Magalie, who jokingly pays along despite being a lesbian, and scaring Elisa’s (Philippe’s daughter) boyfriend into treating her right. The dynamic character of Driss is captured perfectly by actor Omar Sy who carries a solid cast. It is hard to imagine many other actors being able to capture the essence of Driss which is vital to understanding the relationship between him and Philippe.
Outside of Sy’s performance, directors Nakache and Toledano are able to demonstrate the relationship and entertain at the same time through the use of music. Driss is an Earth, Wind, and Fire fan, and even lists them as a reference in his interview for the caretaker position. Philippe, meanwhile, enjoys classical music. Their differing tastes in music, which symbolize their different situations and personalities, appear throughout the movie.
In the opening scene, the speeding car is originally set to a piano tune before switching to “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire after they escape the police. Never does one type of music become more prominent than the other, just as though never does Philippe or Driss’ personality domineer completely over the other. In both cases, it is a give and take relationship. This is further demonstrated through music during Philippe’s birthday party where he has the orchestra play various classical pieces, only to have Driss follow that up with his own Earth, Wind, and Fire playlist, which he dances to.
Philippe, in real life and in the movie, needed more than a relationship with someone who would just give unconditionally to him out of sympathy. He needed someone who would give him a run for his money, who would joke with him, who wouldn’t treat him well out of sympathy, but out of friendship. On the flip side, Driss needed both a purpose in life and a true friend as well—two things he was not finding in either his family or criminal life. He found both in Philippe.
The Intouchables truly allows the viewer to connect with both Driss and Philippe as they develop a beautiful friendship and find exactly what they needed in life in each other. Beyond that, the movie, through the true story, shows that regardless of age, wealth, criminal history, or even health, the best of friendships can be found anywhere and can be set to great music. And what else can you ask for from a true story such as this than to be an entertaining yet thought-provoking, feel good movie?