“The Intouchables” (Americans distributors could have called it “The Untouchables”, but I suppose they didn’t want it to get confused with Brian de Palma’s film about Al Capone) has been an incredible hit in France, watched by over fifteen million people, and is repeating the same level of success in many other European countries. In the U.S., it had so far a box office of US$ 10 million, not bad for a foreign film in a country that hates subtitles.
The film tells the story of the friendship between a quadriplegic rich man and his assistant, a black immigrant from Senegal. It was apparently based in a real case, but in the true story the nurse was an Arab from Algeria, while in the movie he is portrayed as a black man from Senegal. It is unclear why the filmmakers made the change, except to increase the contrast between the two main characters, and to offer an even more audacious propaganda of immigration. Being Arab was perhaps not exotic enough, at this point.
In a superficial level, the success of the movie seems easy to understand: it provides, after all, a feel-good message of understanding between rich and poor, aristocratic French and immigrant minority, handicapped and healthy. Who doesn’t like a happy ending, especially while in real life they are so hard to come by?
There have been many good films about two characters with contrasting personalities that are forced to live together and end up learning much one from the other. Intouchables, however, is not one of those films. In the end, frankly, it is just a superficial movie with one-dimensional characters and a politically correct message that actually seems to be the main concern of the film.
It’s been happening in Hollywood for a while, but we now see the phenomenon in European movies as well: the (liberal) message takes the front seat to the story or the characters. All politically correct bases are covered. In Intouchables, there’s even an unnecessary nod to homosexual couples, totally unrelated to the main plot.
The main problem of the film, however, is that it says nothing real about its characters. The pitch: poor black man teaches rich white French man how to “swing”. Well, not literally, since the poor guy is tied to a wheelchair and can’t move any of his limbs. But, in essence, that’s the message of the film. And, as such, it consists of a complete inversion of what all movies of similar genre have been. Scent of a Woman, both the Italian version with Vittorio Gassman and the American version with Al Pacino, was a good film about a young man who learned something about life from a handicapped man.
You would think the same would happen in Intouchables: that it would be a story about a poor, ignorant immigrant who, in contact with a completely new world of richness and high culture, grows personally, learns about art, poetry, music. But, of course, it’s the opposite. In the film, it is the aristocratic Philippe who learns to have fun driving recklessly, to listen to black pop songs, to smoke dope and to have fun with Asian prostitutes who massage his ears (as if, as a rich aristocrat, he couldn’t have access to better drugs and women).
Driss, the male nurse? Well, he learns how to create meaningless abstract paintings and get rich idiots to buy them (another cliché). He learns a few quips about art and literature, but he mostly uses them as lines to impress women, without any kind of genuine aesthetic interest.
Philippe is also not well developed, and his character also doesn’t seem to grow much. In the end, it seems that the character of Philippe in the film works best as a metaphor for Europe: an old aristocratic continent totally paralyzed by inaction, dragged by third-world immigrants into a life of hedonism, rap, drugs and prostitution, and yet still feeling pretty good about it.