A Best of the Year: French Film With Unusual Friendship

Wednesday Matinee

Destination: France

Movie: The Intouchables

By Jane Boursaw

The IntouchablesI can’t say I was all that thrilled about seeing The Intouchables when I first heard about it. A movie about a wealthy quadriplegic who hires a poor Algerian immigrant to be his caretaker? No thanks, it sounds like just the sort of sentimental tear-fest I tend to avoid.

But then I saw The Intouchables at the Traverse City Film Festival this summer, and it instantly became one of my favorite films of the year. It’s also a beautiful travelogue through Paris and the French countryside.

Inspired by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s memoir A Second Wind, the film follows the author’s life as a black cloud of doom descends upon him in the early 1990s. First his wife is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Then a paragliding accident leaves Philippe a quadriplegic. Even though he’s the descendant of two prominent French families and the director of one of the world’s most celebrated champagne houses, his life is suddenly in ruins.

Imprisoned behind the high walls of his gorgeous Paris townhouse, Philippe (played by Francois Cluzet) is not in the habit of asking others for help, and yet now he needs help to do the smallest thing. Not only is he unable to reach out to others, other are afraid to reach out to him.

Then along comes Driss (Omar Cy), the fictional character based on the real-life Abdel Sellou, who wrote his own book about the experience called You Changed My Life. A poor immigrant who’s been marginalized his whole life,  Driss spent his childhood stealing candy from the local grocery store, which led to a career as a pickpocket, scam artist, and felon who spent time in prison.

The IntouchablesHe only shows up at Philippe’s mansion for an interview as a live-in caretaker because he needs his unemployment papers signed so he can receive his check. But Philippe sees something in Driss he doesn’t see in the other candidates. A man who doesn’t pity him and doesn’t know enough about quadriplegics to see him one way or the other.

Driss is just the person Philippe needs, and thus begins an unlikely friendship that would sustain Philippe’s life for the next ten years. Both men refused to ask for help, and wind up helping each other. As Philippe writes of Driss in his book, “He was an unbearable, vain, proud, brutal, inconsistent human. Without him, I would have rotted to death … He was my guardian devil.”

That’s evident in the first scene of The Intouchables. Driss is driving Philippe’s Maserati through the streets of Paris at night, with Philippe in the passenger seat. They’re speeding along and soon get pulled over by the cops. Driss tells Philippe, “One hundred euros says I can lose them.” To which Philippe replies, “You’re on.”

Driss then tells the cops he needs urgent medical attention for Philippe, who pretends he’s had a stroke. The cops escort them to the hospital, and when they leave, Philippe and Driss drive off.

From there, the story is told in flashbacks, with Driss learning how to care for Philippe, encouraging the quadriplegic to see a woman with whom he’s been corresponding, taking him on high-speed wheelchair walks, reluctantly going paragliding with him, and reveling in the joys of bands like Earth, Wind & Fire. In return, Driss gets a second chance to be the person he’s truly meant to be all along.

The film’s Web site features stories from around the globe of people who’ve been changed by the movie. It reminds us that whether you’re a quadriplegic who’s stuck in a wheelchair or a poor immigrant with few options, there just might be a moment of magic that turns your life in a different direction.

Filmed in Paris, The Intouchables (French with English subtitles) beautifully frames the landscape of the French city. If you’re contemplating a trip to Paris, Driss’ neighborhood might not be on your must-see list, but then again, unless you’re independently wealthy, you probably won’t be staying in Philippe’s gorgeous townhouse either. The lovely countryside where they go paragliding? That’s available to all travelers free of charge. I bet you can find a nice champagne house to check out, too.

The film was written and directed by  Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. It’s rated R for language and some drug use.

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11 thoughts on “A Best of the Year: French Film With Unusual Friendship

  1. This is not a movie I’ve heard of – but glad to know about it. Anything character driven is my preference.

  2. I am kicking myself that I missed this when it was in town, but I’m hoping it will show up on Netflix. Can’t wait to see it. Thanks for your great review, Jane.

  3. This looks like a great film. The actor won a Cesar for his performance, which is like an Oscar, according to the trailer. Omar Sy. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. This film has been on my list – but after reading this stellar review, it’s being moved to the very top. I must see it – sounds wonderful!

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