That’s what I want, no pity.
—Philippe (François Cluzet)
If you feel confused at some point during The Intouchables, that may well be because you have the sensation of being in the wrong film. Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s film is ostensibly about a wealthy white Parisian quadriplegic being nursed by an untrained black man from the projects. This outline draws on some rather egregious race clichés, as well as conventions recalling a sports movie, in which the scrappy underdogs with more heart than skill band together to show up that team from the rich school. While this movie offers no sports, no big game, and very little structure at all, it still leaves the impression of the formula, in protagonists who repeatedly shock those who underestimate them and in tricky plot passages handled by the rousing musical montage. That it doesn’t all end in a tie-breaking three-point shot as the clock buzzes 00:00 makes for a potent disconnect.
It didn’t have to be this way. The plot of The Intouchables is something of a grabber, all the more so for being based on a true story. Jittery and bombastic Driss (Omar Sy, who won the 2012 Best Actor César Award for his performance) shows up in the Versailles-like mansion of quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet) to interview for a caregiver position. After an exchange with Philippe and his assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) that’s more of an argument than an interview, Driss makes clear he’s just there so they can sign a sheet saying he tried, which will enable him to get government benefits. He’s asked back the next day and, despite having absolutely no training and a miserable attitude, he’s hired.
What makes this a story worth telling is Philippe’s interest in Driss. Although he never says it outright, he wants a friend, not a nurse. (That he wants to hire that friend, and a black one at that, is another question.) Driss’ initial incompetence and lack of much compassion come as a relief to Philippe, who can only move his wheelchair by adjusting a control with his mouth and is clearly sick of being the subject of pity. For his part, Driss, who has done prison time for robbery and has just been kicked out of his hardworking mother’s overcrowded apartment, is desperately in need of a focus. The friendship that develops between the two is richly evoked through a cheery rapport and rough badinage that speaks to both actors’ considerable skills.
But The Intouchables gets into trouble right away, hampered by herky-jerk plotting and scripting-by-numbers. Planting Driss like some alien from Paris’s run-down banlieues inside the tight-knit community of Philippe’s mansion suggests he’s in for a stranger in a strange land trajectory. But we see precious little of his life outside the mansion, only glimpses that mark him as “other,” trying to redirect his gang-bound younger brother or for a brief moment, trying to please his frustrated mother. A subplot involving the widowed Philippe’s bratty teenage daughter (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) introduces a few laughs and cursory tears before being summarily discarded. And Driss’ romantic efforts regarding Magalie appear as another sort of joke and cliché, the self-assured black man (here, Senegalese), pursuing the snooty and frowning white woman, who is turned into a foil for her suitor’s bottomless vivacity. When she sees him first time in a suit, she’s assigned a punchline: “You look like Obama.”
Whether or not the film understands the offensively laughable comparison between Driss and Obama (whom he almost couldn’t look less like), this moment underlines that Nakache and Toledano’s film has much to answer for with regard to its race politics. For starters, it buries the charismatic Sy under a pile of stereotypes. Contrasted with the stiff-necked whites in Philippe’s mansion, Driss is all id, grinning and yelling and cursing and even (sigh) showing them how to dance. He introduces Philippe to weed, can’t stand Philippe’s beloved opera (after all, “Music is something you can dance to”), and doesn’t even seem able to read. In return for all his rootsy energy, Driss is introduced to the finer things in life, as though he were some colonial subject to be civilized.
In a word, The Intouchables is the latest incarnation of that cinematic standby, the Magical Negro. Even for the few minutes we see Driss apart from Philippe, he’s distracted from his own life by his employer’s needs, here a sign of Driss’ worthy devotion. Ultimately, Driss is only here to serve as a life-affirming font of raucous energy to cure Philippe’s ennui (and find him a girlfriend). The least the film could have done was to allow him a scintilla of dignity in the process.