One of the most purely pleasurable Gallic films in recent years has divorced the critics from the public as never before. Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy star as the mismatched Philippe and Driss; the former being a quadraplegic millionaire, the latter his ex-con helper from a Paris banlieue. Some reviewers detested the film for its feelgood vibe, which is rather odd when you consider the rubbish Hollywood foists on everyone else, largely without complaint. Why must we expect France to only produce bourgeois comedies of manners?
Although the film is based on a true story it seems – on the surface, at least – too soft-centred for its own good. But there’s a physicality to Sy’s performance that convinces you something will go horribly wrong in this odd-couple friendship. And if it was a Hollywood film there would be a third act drama that would result in lessons learned, much hugging, and tears against a tinkly Mark Isham score.
Aristocratic Philippe has carers who treat him with joyless concern when what he needs is shaking up, quite literally. In comes Driss, very tall, very dark and very blunt about illness, death, sex and happiness. He’s what Philippe needs, and the cultural crosshatching rubs off on both of them. Philippe hits the spliffs, Driss starts painting, but if any lessons are learned they’re certainly not dwelt upon.
It ain’t Robert Bresson, but then it’s not trying to be – however, I thought I’d look at the adverse US critical reaction a little more closely. Time Out New York, regarded in Europe as a bit of a joke for its insular pomposity, took exception. A reviewer called Keith Uhlich gave the film two stars (Time Out’s public rating was four stars) and produced probably the only review that managed to drop in a mention of the Dardenne brothers by way of comparison.
To be fair, Mr Uhlrich is an intelligent, experienced reviewer writing for the TONY demograph of lost cynics who would be panicked by the film’s soft-focus treatment of a hot-button topic, and he probably nailed it for them. (The original Time Out is just about to become a free paper, which will be a shot in the arm for its declining circulation – I have a soft spot for the mag, having been a reviewer there myself for five years.)
However, Uhlich failed to appreciate the film’s Parisienne mindset, where race and class barriers are broached in all sorts of odd ways owing to its residents’ complex colonial heritage and their ingrained faith in socialist theory. And there’s an unusual scripting trick at work in the film. The Hollywood approach would have heightened the duo’s differences in a series of fights and embarrassments, ‘Modern Family’-style, before a bittersweet finale. Instead, their pairing shows just how much they have in common, so much so that they never fight at all and have nothing but admiration for each other. From a writer’s point of view this is a far tougher trick to pull off.
Meanwhile, in the UK the film seems not to have opened at all. Too mainstream for the arthouses, physically unable to earn back its purchase price, it languishes in the special corner of hell reserved for huge European hits that can’t make the economic crossover because they’re subtitled.
You would have to be a very angry person not to get some pleasure from ‘Intouchables’. At the end, the filmmakers acknowledge the gap between fiction and truth by showing the real-life Driss to be Arabic, not Senegalese, a point in their favour.