By Joan Ellis
The Intouchables is lifted high by two actors who know how to transcend the ordinary. Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy repeatedly reach for the unexpected in a script that is limited by the story itself. They make us laugh when it seems nothing can be funny and they touch us when we least expect it. They surprise us again and again – a great gift to any audience.
As a result of a paragliding accident, Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a quadriplegic. He is a French multimillionaire with a glorious mansion and riches that can command the very best of care. His affairs are tended to by a loyal staff. As we are dropped into his life, his chief of staff is interviewing candidates for chief caretaker. Unobtrusively to the side, Philippe oversees the process from his wheelchair. This is a man who can design every detail of his world within the parameters of his disability.
One boring applicant after another drips out clichés of compassion and experience until they are interrupted by the insistent Driss (Omar Sy) who has come for the sole purpose of collecting an official rejection signature that will ensure his unemployment benefits. Without explanation Philippe hires Driss who doesn’t want the job. The wheelchair-bound man is looking not just for complete physical care, but for vitality, for excitement that will distract him from his life sentence and temper his longing for the beautiful dead wife he adored.
The reluctant Driss has the 24-hour duty of doing for Philippe everything a paralyzed man needs and can’t do. Right here we spot the potential flaw in the film: Will this be yet another tale of compassionate caregiver delivering the essentials to a grateful patient? By no means. Driss is not a charming guy. Up from the back streets of Paris, he can be decidedly inept and untactful but his mistakes endear him to Philippe because they are the mistakes one equal makes toward another. Driss is incapable of condescension. He listens and challenges and creates the adventures Philippe craves.
In a sublime scene we realize suddenly that we may have to pay for our pleasure with a clichéd wrap-up and we prepare ourselves for disappointment. No such thing. These actors are far too good for that. Cluzet, who must act the whole film with facial expression as his only tool, conveys a world of excitement and heartbreak. Sy gives us a disinclined caregiver who offers his help to a man in need and opens himself to the growth his new friend offers him in return.
This is a story (based on an actual one) of two men who, for different reasons, have become outsiders in the culture of the world that surrounds them. It’s all about acceptance and genuine respect – and wit. Philippe is a risk taker, Driss a risk avoider. Cluzet and Sy handle that complicated equation deftly and leave us smiling at their skill.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.