“We’ll escort you. It’s safer.”
Leave it to my Americanized way of looking at things to go into the César Award-nominated French film Intouchables [The Intouchables] by thinking it would be yet another run-of-the-mill rich white guy helping poor black guy tale. With a Hollywood remake already in the works, I see our adaptation falling into such tropes by increasing hostility as lead character Driss turns into a punk who falls prey to outside preconceptions and lets his employer down before redeeming himself. But Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano‘s film refuses to pander to obvious clichés, instead finding the confidence to prove Driss is simply a misunderstood young man ripped from his home without a means to know he can do better. He may not fit perfectly into Philippe’s aristocratic world, but that only makes him the precise infusion of honesty without pity needed to jumpstart the quadriplegic’s tragic life.
Don’t get me wrong—Driss (Omar Sy) is a punk. However, there is an inherent compassion cutting through the tough guy façade to shine when those in his care—whether a hoard of siblings at home or his new employer—need him most. A proponent of tough love and brimming with an overabundance of cocky self-assuredness, there is no better opening than watching he and Philippe (François Cluzet) in a fast car outrunning police on a bet. Speeding away with wide smiles, the fact Driss ups the ante with a new wager after getting pulled over and accosted shows how inseparable and invincible they are together. Talking himself out of an arrest with help from his co-pilot’s ability to create drool on cue, the two bask in the victory with a rousing drive through an opening credit sequence set to Earth, Wind & Fire‘s “September”.
But how did this unlikely pair find each other? How does a kid just out of jail for robbery end up earning the trust to not only drive a car worth more than his mother’s apartment but also care for a man unable to move? It all comes down to Philippe’s hardened heart wanting to rid his life of the cowards too afraid to treat him like a man ever since being saddled with the wheelchair. Driss walked into the mansion estate assuming they’d see the color of his skin, decline his application, and give him the third rejection signature needed for government assistance. What he found instead was a man who appreciated his candor, the advances towards the lovely Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), and complete disregard of his obvious ailments. After a string of college grads with technical answers and impersonal motivations, Philippe found his caretaker.
From this moment on it’s the Cluzet and Sy show. Full of hysterical quips, their brilliant rapport is peerless. Watching Driss hold the phone for Philippe—forgetting his companion can’t reach out and grab it—shows the exact sort of indifference the invalid had sought. His young caretaker lives life for joy, refuses to pander to the affluent airs surrounding him, and seamlessly turns any embarrassing situation into one of jest. Never does Philippe question Driss’ honesty; never does the employee think about harming the first authority figure to ever see him as a human being. The two take to one another quickly as their escapades in the Maserati Quattroporte lead to massages from hookers, attempts to woo pen pal Eléonore (Dorothée Brière), and a plane ride to paraglide in the country—the same activity that for all intents and purposes took Philippe’s life.
Mixed with the comedy, however, is also a strong sense of finding oneself above the hard-to-shake images they project. Both men are hiding from themselves, pretending their new life of fun can make their troubles melt away. And while Nakache and Toledano do well to help shield us from the drama by putting us in stitches with ceaseless banter, a cast of supporting players including Philippe’s trusted friend Yvonne (Anne Le Ny), and culture clashes placing Driss into the audience of a four-hour long German opera, they expertly bring it back into focus at precise moments for full poignancy. We watch them struggle alone with their secrets until their ability to help each other as friends becomes possible when Driss’ brother Adama (Cyril Mendy) arrives to wake them up and remember the very different worlds they come from.
Adrenaline pumps as the Maserati roars down the highway; the desire to dance along with Driss to “Boogie Wonderland” is unavoidable after he finishes ruining classical compositions by naming the commercials they’re used in; and our human spirit comes alive when exposed to these amazing actors opening each others’ eyes to the simplicities of life. Art, music, fashion, and more get lambasted as their fears are overcome and shortcomings are made strengths. Sy brought the entire theatre to the point of tears with his unabashed fervor for laughter in a genuine performance that makes any attempt to recreate it impossible. But while he has the flashier role with more memorable lines, the genius would be missed if not for Cluzet’s heart-wrenching turn as a man trapped by a life no longer worth living. Watching Driss pull a grin from Philippe is when this true-life story is at its best.
And with a soundtrack including Nina Simone, George Benson, and Ludovico Einaudi‘s gorgeous score including the amazing “Fly” & “Una Mattina”, The Intouchables fires on all cylinders. It touches your soul visually, aurally, and intellectually as the wit and gravitas of its drama keep you enthralled throughout. We take the plunge, admiring the relationship cultivated between these two men as they grow together and find things can always get better. Lost without an identity, Driss and Philippe discover who they are and who they want to be. Laughter really is the best medicine.
 (L-R) Anne Le as Yvonne, Francois Cluzet as Philippe and Omar Sy as Driss in THE INTOUCHABLES Photographer: Thierry Valletoux Copyright: © 2011 Gaumont – Quad
 Francois Cluzet as Philippe (center) in THE INTOUCHABLES Photographer: Thierry Valletoux Copyright: © 2011 Gaumont – Quad
 (L-R) Omar Sy as Driss and Francois Cluzet as Philippe in THE INTOUCHABLES Photographer: Thierry Valletoux Copyright: © 2011 Gaumont – Quad