A fabulously wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet of Tell No One) hires an ex-con from the projects (Omar Sy) to take care of him in The Intouchables, which in March became the top-grossing non-English-language film of all time.
French enthusiasms are often lost in translation (for every La Cage aux Folles, we have many more comedies like Welcome to the Sticks, France’s previous top-grosser) and The Intouchables has already been charged with Uncle Tomism by Jay Weissberg in Variety. It’s an accusation that would have been mitigated had the caregiver in The Intouchables—which is based on the true story of champagne magnate Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Algerian-born street thug Abdel Sellou—been played by an Arab actor, but in France this is a distinction without a difference.
Class immobility is really the issue in The Intouchables. Driss (Sy), who was born in Senegal, is, like the housing project in which he was raised, on the outskirts of French society. Options for work are few: there’s drug-dealing, from which he’s trying to save his teenage cousin (Cyril Mendy), and there’s the dole. When Driss goes to a job interview in a mansion in Saint Germain des Prés, it’s to make the quota of rejections required to keep his unemployment benefits. Instead, Philippe (Cluzet) hires him.
What follows echoes ’80s class-struggle comedies like Trading Places. What could be more relevant to our current economic stratification? Driss settles in at the mansion, luxuriating in his lavish quarters and private bath and hitting on Philippe’s secretary (Audrey Fleurot) relentlessly. Philippe exposes Driss to classical music and art; Driss returns the favor with Earth, Wind and Fire and medical marijuana. Refusing to believe that Philippe’s sex life is over just because he’s paralyzed from the neck down, Driss hires hookers and encourages Philippe to meet the pen pal to whom he has been writing labored romantic poems.
Writers-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, whose previous comedies have not been released theatrically in the US, regard these “untouchable” men with a dry, unsentimental eye; if the epithet “feel-good” persists, it’s because it’s impossible to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” without smiling. They conceived Intouchables as a vehicle for Sy, last seen in this country in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, and what a star-making vehicle it is. French comics usually fall flat in the US, (Micmacs’ Dany Boon, anyone?) but Sy might as well be speaking English. He delivers a dynamic, richly textured performance, what a young Eddie Murphy might have been capable of had Hollywood given him the chance.
The Weinstein Company, which distributed the French film and has awkwardly appended a “The” to the title (The Untouchables will forever be associated with Eliot Ness), has bought the remake rights to an English-speaking version. It’s not hard to imagine Robert DeNiro in Cluzet’s role for American audiences—or, if the Weinsteins want to avoid the race issue, Morgan Freeman. Either way, it will be played with the sanctimony, hugs and jerked tears that The Intouchables has been accused of but ruthlessly avoids.