'Intouchables': French Cream-Puffery
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
A feel-good flick that broke box-office records in France, "The Intouchables" boasts a natural-born movie star in Omar Sy, who's gifted with the kind of charisma and physical grace the camera loves and audiences are helplessly seduced by. That may account for his walking away with France's Best Actor César in a year when Jean Dujardin of "The Artist" won big everywhere else.
Sy's ebullient warmth plays well with the more contained but no less charming François Cluzet, best known outside France for his own César-winning performance in 2006's twisted Hitchcockian thriller "Tell No One." The two generate such fun and good will in this Gallic "Driving Miss Daisy" (or "Trading Places," "Scent of a Woman," ad nauseam) that you can almost forgive the film's breezy racial stereotyping, cheap comedy and phony-baloney attitudes toward art, culture, class, and quadriplegia. Almost.
Elegant, super-rich, a connoisseur of the arts, Cluzet's Philippe bears his near-total paralysis with admirable dignity, putting a good face on what's obviously sheer hell for a man who loved living on the edge. Having shattered his spine in a paragliding accident, Philippe depends on the kindness of caretakers, who come and go with depressing regularity. On a whim he hires Driss (Sy), a big, brash Senegalese man who's applied for a job he isn't qualified for and doesn't want, just to keep unemployment benefits flowing.
Massa and his initially reluctant mammy slowly but surely bond: Cultured aristo educates uncouth African in the finer things while Rousseau's noble savage therapeutically shakes up the plantation -- sorry, luxe Parisian digs -- with his irreverent appetite for living large, often fueled by copious quantities of ganja. (It's worth wondering why, in adapting this true-life story for the screen, writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano felt constrained to make Driss a Senegalese instead of the Arab he really was.)
No subtlety or anything like ugly reality spoils this laugh-stuffed stew. Driss' bad-boy antics never seriously raise eyebrows; even the switchblade he keeps in his kip and his theft of a priceless Fabergé egg are just grist for an easy giggle and a weepy payoff. When he pours hot coffee on Philippe's dead legs, it's hard not to be infected by his amazed, amoral delight -- even the quadriplegic has to smile. Pretty quick this liberated soul has introduced Philippe to hookers happy to lick his ears, the last erogenous zone for a man who can't feel anything below his neck. ("Sometimes they're hard when I wake up.") Driss even ups the ante on his boss's long-term "epistolary" love affair.
Cluzet trumps a genuinely demanding role. He must play a watching game, audience to Sy's crowd-pleasing (minstrel?) show, yet his understated expressions of vicarious pleasure are never upstaged by his co-star's broad-brush style as he animates Philippe's still life. Called upon to surrender sharp-eyed intelligence for something like slapstick silliness, Cluzet stops short of selling out his character's dignity -- even when drooling and throwing a fit to fool les flics following a high-speed chase through Paris streets.
That's the crux of it, really. No matter how ultra-corny and manipulative this French cream puff is, no matter how it glosses over the hard realities of a broken body, the seductive power of the two stars' pitch-and-catch performances is hard to resist.
Take a scene that screams stereotype with full-throated shamelessness: On the occasion of a boring birthday party, Philippe tries to beguile Driss into loving classical music, with the obedient assistance of a rented chamber orchestra. Unmoved by Vivaldi or Telemann, the big guy turns on Earth, Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" and boogies down, all long-limbed liquid grace, his joie de vivre galvanizing everyone into free-form dance. The mixture of pain and pleasure that transforms Cluzet's face as he watches is the real deal, as is Sy's elegant spontaneity.
Savoring such moments in "The Intouchables" is like selling your soul to the devil. You'll pay for it later, but they please as they play.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.