My review for Les Petits Mouchoirs began thusly: “The American stereotype of French films is that of a string of conversations, languidly paced, with little plot connecting them apart from the troubled relationships and intersecting desires of idle, upper-middle-class characters. People smoke, stare thoughtfully off-camera, and talk at cross-purposes.” Maybe I should amend the statement to say that this is the American stereotype of older French films. Or, maybe I should do away with the sentiment altogether; The Intouchables makes a strong case that Western pop cinema is coalescing into one recognizable stylistic milieu.
I’m about to describe the plot, but before I do, I just want to make clear that I know this film is based on a true story. I know that. So was The Blind Side. So was Ray. Being ‘based on a true story!’ doesn’t grant an automatic free pass for cliché, banality, or prosaicness. More often than not, life paddles about in such pedestrian waters, and great films can be made from such seemingly trite material: My Dinner with Andre, Claire’s Knee, Before Sunset. On the flip side, egregiously banal fare can blossom from extraordinary true-life circumstances: Seabiscuit, The Alamo (either version), Braveheart, The Killing Fields…
…and The Intouchables. France’s latest submission for the Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar tells the tale of Philippe, a fabulously wealthy tetraplegic living in a lush mansion, interviewing candidates to be his live-in caregiver. After a montage of amusingly unqualified candidates, he meets Driss. Driss is a young black man from Paris’s version of the ghetto; he has no actual desire to be Philippe’s caregiver, but he needs an employer’s signature to show the welfare office so his benefits do not lapse. Driss presents himself as unprofessional, indifferent to Philippe’s condition, abrasive, and callow. In a completely surprising and wholly unpredictable twist, Driss turns out to be the only candidate Philippe invites back for another interview.
Philippe likes that Driss doesn’t seem to notice his condition at all, and sees him as a human being. Driss likes that Philippe doesn’t see some fuck-up from the Parisian slums, and sees him as a human being. Most of the film’s runtime is occupied by something that, I learned in elementary school Social Studies, is termed “cultural diffusion.” Example: in one sequence, Philippe hosts a classical music recital in his home, introducing Driss to the wonders of fine culture. Driss then spins some Earth, Wind, & Fire, which, in a completely surprising and wholly unpredictable twist, impels all of Philippe’s guests to dance their cares away. Et cetera.
Look, it’s not all bad. François Cluzet is a very talented actor, and watching him perform makes The Intouchables worth seeing by itself. I was particularly struck by Omar Sy’s performance as Driss; it is such an underwritten character, and Sy brings so much energy and heart to the role. He reminded me of Souléymane Sy Savané’s cheery cabbie in Goodbye Solo. Sy won the César Award for Best Actor for his performance, defeating both Cluzet and last year’s Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin. In total, The Intouchables was nominated for nine of France’s over-sized, oddly-shaped trophies, but was bested by The Artist in most of the other categories.
What does this mean for the Academy Awards? Alex already noted that The Intouchables is exactly the type of film the Academy trips over itself trying to praise: warm-hearted, crowd-pleasing, based on a true story!, French, already on track for an English-language remake, and so on. I’d say you could make easy money betting on its inclusion in the shortlist. Which isn’t to say it deserves to be on there; it’s not one of the five best non-English films of the year. It’s not even one of the five best French-language films released this year. But if you’re in the mood for an inoffensive, button-pushing, faintly satisfying entertainment, here it is.
Bottom line: The Intouchables is standard, unremarkable, crowd-pandering fare—almost certain to be on the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film.
For more information about this year’s foreign film submissions, be sure to check out Film Misery’s detailed webpage.