Driving Monsieur Philippe: The New French Blockbuster

January 17, 2012By Heidi EllisonFilm
Paris Update intouchables-1
Driss (Omar Sy) and Philippe (François Cluzet) out for a jog in “Intouchables.”

I resisted seeing Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s new feel-good film, Intouchables, for some time on the principle that any film that popular couldn’t be very good, but when its ticket sales just kept climbing and started to break records (at this writing, it is the second most popular French film in France since 1945, just behind Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis), it was no longer just a movie but a social phenomenon, so I caved in and went to see it.

So, what is the great appeal of this simple, sentimental comedy? Picture it as a sort of French Driving Miss Daisy, with a wealthy white quadriplegic man who lives in a sumptuous Paris townhouse in the role of Miss Daisy, and, as her chauffeur, a black home-help aide from the banlieues (suburbs, the French equivalent of the ghetto). All the yuks come from the culture clash between the refined, cultured world inhabited by Philippe and the street-smart, dope-smoking universe of ex-con Driss.

No need to enumerate the stereotypes that are played out on each side. Just keep in mind that France is 20-30 years behind the United States and other countries when it comes to treating minorities as real people (wheelchair access is still something of a joke here, and only very recently have black people begun to appear in significant roles on TV), and that it is almost a revolution to have a black man and a disabled man as heroes in a film. Looked at that way, perhaps Intouchables is a giant leap forward.

I have to admit I was charmed to some extent by the film, not so much by its heartwarming story (“inspired by” a documentary called A la Vie, à la Mort about the relationship between a disabled man and his North African – not black, but, hey, aren’t all minorities the same? – helper), but by the actors. Omar Sy plays Driss as one happy, outgoing, uninhibited hunk of exuberant charm – a big, clownish puppy dog with a slight criminal streak and a healthy dose of irreverence – while François Cluzet as Philippe manages to convincingly convey the whole gamut of emotions using just his facial features (this would be a great exercise for acting schools). The chemistry between them is entirely convincing, and I think this is what gives the film its appeal. Anne Le Ny, who plays a secondary role, is also excellent, as usual.

Omar Sy has appeared in other movies by Toledano and Nakache, including Nos Jours Heureux, in which he also played a lovable guy who is a great dancer. Let’s hope that for his next movie, he will get a role with more bite and less Uncle Tom to it – he’s got the talent, but seems to have been typecast already.

By the way, an American remake of Intouchables by Harvey Weinstein is apparently already in the works. I can’t wait to see what combination of minorities they will come up with.



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