July 27, 2012 in Features

‘Intouchables’ lifted by cast, light touch

Joe Williams McClatchy-Tribune

Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet star in “The Intouchables.”
(Full-size photo)

“The Intouchables” isn’t a very descriptive title – a better homage to its influences might be “The Diving Bell and the Scent of Monsieur Daisy” – but that didn’t stop this dramedy about a rich quadriplegic and his immigrant chauffeur from becoming one of the biggest hits in the history of French cinema. It’s the kind of movie that inspires word-of-mouth recommendations by speaking the international language of culture clash.

Driss (Omar Sy) is a boisterous and resourceful Senegalese immigrant who answers an ad for a caretaker to widowed millionaire Philippe (Francois Cluzet), who was injured in a paragliding accident. Driss just wants a signature on a form, so he can prove that he was looking for work and deserves unemployment benefits. But Philippe is impressed with the young man’s honesty and hires Driss as a live-in assistant.

Compared with the public housing project where Driss’ relatives live, Philippe’s apartment is the palace at Versailles, with fine art on the walls and a staff of white toadies who croak about the black stranger. But predictably Driss is a breath of fresh air, stirring romance between the staffers and blowing away the cobwebs with the funk music that he prefers to Philippe’s musty Mozart.

Yet perhaps because it’s in a foreign language and a culture that’s not as historically divided as our own, the racial stereotypes don’t seem egregious. Much of the credit goes to the very likable Sy, who won the French equivalent of the Academy Award for best actor. His oversize personality dominates the movie, at the expense of Driss’ sketchily rendered relatives and even Philippe’s physical challenges.

There’s some mild slapstick about the need for a seat belt in his wheelchair and a humorously high-flying role reversal in the last act, but mostly the medical subplot is as inconsequential as Philippe’s choice of chapeau when he dresses to meet the pen pal who doesn’t know he’s a quadriplegic.

The easygoing posture and strong casting keep “The Intouchables” from stumbling over vexing questions of race, class and disability. When the inevitable American remake happens, instead of relying on comedians to escort us past the pitfalls, the filmmakers may want to take a stand.

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