‘The Intouchables’: Heartfelt and funny

May 21, 2012

“The Intouchables,” opening Friday (5/25/12) in limited release, offers the epitome of the breakout performance: Omar Sy, who won the Cesar, the French Oscar, for best actor for his performance in this film, defeating Jean Dujardin for “The Artist.” Sy was already a star in France – but he’ll come as a surprise to Americans.

A Senegalese actor who grew up in France, Sy gives a performance that is incredibly vibrant, underlined by a certain sadness. He fairly bursts off the screen, playing a character that is an embodiment of undirected life force, one who gradually learns to focus his energy to make him someone truly to be reckoned with.

Sy plays Driss, an unemployed immigrant in Paris who initially is just looking for someone to sign his form, acknowledging that he’s applied for jobs, so he can collect unemployment. Fresh out of jail after a six-month stint for robbery, he catches the eye of Philippe (Francois Cluzet), who admires Driss’ willingness to look at Philippe as a person, rather than a good deed.

Philippe is a millionaire; he’s also a quadriplegic, in the market for a new caregiver. We see the other applicants, all offering noble reasons (or worse) for wanting to work for Philippe, who lives in an amazing chateau in the center of Paris. Driss, however, doesn’t offer him pity; he treats him as an equal, rather than an employer or, worse, a cripple in need of pity.

Driss finds himself unexpectedly employed, living in luxurious surroundings and achieving an intimacy with his employer that few friends ever reach. Their relationship as boss-worker evolves to friendship that opens new vistas for both of them in ways neither could anticipate.

Based on a true story, “The Intouchables” is a movie that already has been tarred with the condescending brush of American critics who mischaracterize it as patronizing to the character of Driss. One went so far as to wrong-headedly invoke the inaccurate specter of racism and to use the term “Uncle Tom,” which seems like a willful misreading, through a particularly uptight lens.

The title (a clumsy one, at best, blending English with the French word for “untouchable”) refers to both characters: the drastically disabled man, who essentially is shut away from society; and the immigrant, part of a group with whom the country’s natives have, at best, an ambivalent relationship.

In this film by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, both have been marginalized – and each man gives the other something. For Driss, raised on the streets, it’s not just a brush with classical music and art museums, but a sense of his own possibility in life, beyond what he’s already done. For Philippe, it’s re-engaging with life in ways he’d given up on since the paragliding accident that cost him his mobility.

It’s a distinctly American response to view this through the prism of race, simply because the characters are black and white. The relationship between these men has to do with class; race never enters into it. It’s a story of rich and poor, immigrant and Frenchman. Viewing it through an American lens on race ignores the reality of the story.

It’s neither condescending nor patronizing; it’s simply human, beautifully so. The give-and-take between Philippe and Driss is honest and sharply humorous; each has a wit that tends to the inappropriate, which bonds them in ways that have nothing to do with race, social status or anything else, other than a shared ability to laugh at things that might appall others.

Cluzet, who looks more like Dustin Hoffman with age, gives a wonderfully dry performance as a rich man trying to regain control of a life that suddenly slipped from his grasp. It’s a terrific bit of acting, accomplished only with his face, his head and, most particularly, his eyes, which can be amazingly expressive.

As noted, Sy is like a force of nature in this role, capable of introspection but also of dazzling energy. A scene in which he breaks loose on the dance floor to the sounds of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” is one of the most merry in recent memory: an explosion of physical joy in an environment that has been sapped of it.

Uplifting, life-affirming and funny – they’re among the best words to describe “The Intouchables.” Ignore the nay-sayers; this is a film that will touch your heart in the most direct way imaginable.

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