When an Incomprehensible Title Meets a Dopey Script: The Intouchables

Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables

The Intouchables is a movie that’s so overly genial and perky that it’s easy to miss just how offensive it is – not to mention extraordinarily banal. This is another in a long line of movies in which we are introduced to a free-spirited minority who turns the world of an uptight, white household on its head. A wealthy quadriplegic hires Driss, a Senegalese immigrant, as his caregiver. Driss’ only qualification is that he doesn’t have any qualifications except for being, as our quadriplegic Philip says, merciless. Of course we don’t see much evidence of Driss being merciless or tough except we’re told he has a criminal record and we briefly see him living a bad neighborhood. He’s always good natured and non-threatening, never a man that feels dangerous in any way – except, naturally, that he’s black. Oh, and he’s willing to break rules to make Philip more comfortable or have more have fun. Never mind the lives that are being threatened as they speed down the road, away from the police – Philip wants to go fast!

This is another example of what Spike Lee has termed the Magical Negro character in U.S. fiction, now apparently not limited to U.S. movies. Driss’ irrepressible joie de vivre and exotic blackness are his “magical-ness” and they are enough to spark a new interest in life for Philip and his entire household, from his personal assistant to his housekeeper to his daughter, all of whom are stricken with problematic, but curable cases of uneasy whiteness.

While Omar Sy is wonderful as Driss (and is receiving just accolades and, thankfully, more work), his effort is wasted. We spend a couple hours watching Driss and Philip bond, share, laugh, and cry, but we don’t learn much of anything about what day to day life might be like for a quadriplegic. (Though I have heard from some handicapped friends that, unfortunately, the movie gets the horrid indifference of trained caregivers absolutely right.) And we end up knowing less than nothing about what life is like for Paris’ immigrants, the neighborhoods in which they live, and the issues they face.

Yeah…. this actually happens.

And I think this lack of substance is why the movie has been so successful, especially in France, a country that has had tenuous relationships with their African and Arab immigrant communities. It’s a feel good story that doesn’t challenge its audiences or stir up nasty memories of race riots that rocked Paris several years back. It’s saccharine and empty-headed with nothing relevant to say about race relations, class, friendship, or disability. No wonder it’s grossed over $200 million.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “When an Incomprehensible Title Meets a Dopey Script: The Intouchables

  1. Oh boy. We are on completely different sides of the fence with this one my friend. I loved it, found nothing false or offensive and agree with the French critics who deride American paranoia and overreaction to anything that deals with ethnicity. Yes Cy was extraordinary, but the film work on a number of levels.

    But fair enough, excellent essay. We can’t and won’t always agree.

    • The French critics are only offended by the fact that U.S. critics know racism when they see it. I’m not saying this is the worst movie about race in the history of French cinema, but it’s certainly insensitive and blind to historical and social realities. Too many want to believe Europe (or Western Europe) is a racial utopia, devoid of the clashes and problems that have plagued the U.S., so when some say, “Hey, that’s kinda racist,” they have fits. They might not think this movie is racially insensitive and Americans are overreacting, but few would have thought minstrel shows in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were racist either.

      But even more offensive to me is the fact that, unlike you, I didn’t find anything that worked.

    • Takeshi Hiyama

      I understand where the contributor for Movies Over Matter is coming from but I don’t always choose a movie, unless it’s a documentary, to be educated about the daily strifes of immigrants (like me) or any other social issue mentioned. Why are people always searching for the perfect picture when none of us have exactly the same sets of ‘eyes’ through which to view them? Like S. Juliano says, “we can’t and won’t always agree.” And I chose to enjoy it immensely for various artistic reasons. You can look at this movie like Driss’s abstract painting and choose to sneer at it for its banality or find the “11.000” euros-worth of potential. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. I agree with SJ above, I think the problem is in the translation. It’s not “merciless” that the stuffy white dude admires in him, but rather it’s “lack of pity” (“sans pitié”). This is what all the “professional” cripple-helpers have in common, they pity him, and he’s disgusted by it. Driss treats him without pity, and initially without much thought.

    But as always, to each their own brocifer.

    • Yeah, I don’t think the problem is the translation. I didn’t remember the word correctly, but you’re right. He did say “without pity.” Either way, it doesn’t change my beef with the movie. It’s the worst kind of thoughtless heartwarming manipulation. It’s France’s version of The Help, designed to make middle class white folks feel great about how unracist they and their country are.

      But I have to clarify: Did you really like this?

      • I gave it – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 5/5. I thought artistically it was moderately above your average studio pic because of its European subtlety. As entertainment, it had me and my friends rolling in stitches from some of its scenes (particularly Driss slamming the Frenchies’ head against the “no parking” sign, smoking blunts, and the bath salts reference). I thought it was definitely worth repeat viewings.

        The racial aspect is an interesting one, and I doubt you’d agree with me because my views tend to be idiosyncratic across the board. But I do believe that the French have it both better and worse than us when it comes to race relations. They avoid dogwhistle politics, but that also opens them up to ignorance of real racial disparities and issues (La Haine is still taken seriously in France [righteously so], whereas we discard Haggis’ Crash to the Dustbin [again, righteously so]). Whenever you ask the French about their cities, they tend to say avoid “le Quartier Arabe / Maghrebine”. And you go there and it’s like the moderately safe part of any Murrican city and you’re wondering WTF.

        The French reaction to the American reaction to The Intouchables was typical Euro-Trash sneering at our crude ways of overblowing stuff, but I think the truth does lay somewhere not in the middle but completely off the map. I thought there wasn’t ENOUGH insensitivity. My feeling on The Intouchables was that if it wanted to break any real artistic ground, it would have represented how upper class French people REALLY talk about African immigrants when nobody is listening – when Bono, the Pope, and the media isn’t around to hear. That goes for Americans too – that’s what unites us both. I think white people who tell other white people to hold back on the racism are the real rarity, at least in my experience. I think a truly interesting film that would have received 5s across the board from me would have depicted a real bigot (Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino), establishing brotherhood with some sparsely-principled hoodlum with a real criminal record. That just ain’t ready for the world, I guess.

        • I don’t think we’re as far apart on this as you might think, except for the fact that I hated the movie and you enjoyed it.

          Though when I say the movie is racially insensitive, I’m not saying they don’t show French racism enough (which I agree would be an interesting way to go), but that the filmmakers aren’t even aware they are perpetuating racial stereotypes and repeating a story told a million times to make white people feel better about their own racial jitters. I was annoyed that Driss was never a complete character with a story that could have told us something about the life of African immigrants in Paris. Yes, it’s satisfying to see him slam the head of an obnoxious guy into a sign, but that’s the easy stuff. Any writer can come up with that (and they have many many times). Give me something true and real — or at least a close approximation.

          I’m not asking for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but a much better movie that deals with similar themes without being offensive is Passion Fish, a movie without all the feel good gooeyness of this one.

  3. I had come across this one after seeing both Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, and Innaritu’s Biutiful, both dealing with the harsh treatment of immigrants in Western Europe (both also released at a time of increased right wing ethnic nationalism in Europe). As cheeky as Kaurismaki gets, Le Havre was just as serious a film as Biutiful, and both ended with an underlying brow furrowing at “Fortress Europe”. What I could immediately appreciate about Intouchables was that it most certainly was not a serious nor artistic film, and a simple unlikely friendship story with some caustic jabs. Talking about racial stereotypes exhausts me to death. Those “Peggy” commercials from Discover Card I find to be incredibly stupid and indirectly offensive, because they’re afraid of offending Indians because of that stereotype, but feel it’s fine to paint Romanians with the same Eastern Euro brush that everyone gets upset at Sacha Baron Cohen for using. Stereotypes can be insulting, demeaning, and crude if done carelessly, but I chafe under an oversensitive world that can’t live with them at all.

    • “Stereotypes can be insulting, demeaning, and crude if done carelessly, but I chafe under an oversensitive world that can’t live with them at all.”

      You and I agree completely here. We only differ on the fact that I think this movie carelessly dished out stereotypes. This movie also privileges the problems of white people while using the problems of minorities as convenient narrative devices. Sorry to bore you with talk about stereotypes, but we clearly don’t see eye to eye on this one.

  4. Brian

    But does Sellou wish to convey those things for which you seek in his book? If not, why would the screenplay writers?

    Was Sellou really among the minority in France? Just don’t understand why you’re disappointed in a movie that is simply trying to tell a true story. If it were pure fiction, and the writers were blatantly depicting France in a false light, then you might have a point.

    On the other hand, I thought the movie did convey the day to day life of a rich quadriplegic sufficiently. Phillipe’s day begins at 7, he must be dressed, fed, bathed, and he must have his diaper changed. He’s like a baby, and he’s tired of being treated with pity or as if he’s not normal. His medication makes it hard for him to sleep. He wants to commit suicide. He’s ashamed of his condition and therefore avoids physical contact with women. And friends often make fun of each other, but for some reason it’s wrong for Phillipe’s friends to make fun of him. But Driss treats Phillipe like a regular guy, and forges a friendship with him to the point of flinging harmless jolts. “No feet, no sweets.” lol..

    Life of Paris immigrants is also sufficiently conveyed. Driss is a thief who just did six months in prison. He can’t find work and he knows employers will most likely reject him, so he depends on unemployment and welfare. His mother does typical immigrant work; clean. She walks to and from work, and she relies on public transportation. There are about seven people living in an apartment with one bathroom. Driss’s brother is headed for a life of crime and prison since he has no father figure. Driss lives on the street with other immigrants, sharing food and smoking weed all night. He steals a Faberge egg upon arrival at Phillipe’s home, but he is smart enough not to continue stealing after being blessed with such a position.

    Racism is implied when Phillipe’s lawyer friend comes to tell Phillipe that everyone is concerned about the caretaker he has chosen. It’s also implied when Driss is waiting to be interviewed; all the white men go first while the black man is ignored. To me, it even seems like Yvonne is scared of the big black man and she has to warm up to him. And the white people know nothing about black music (Cool and the Gang, or Earth, Wind, and Fire), while the black man knows of both black and white song writers. “Sool and the Gang, or whatever they’re called.” To Phillipe, black music is irrelevant.

    Condemnedmovies is right about the entertainment. The comedian in Sy really comes out in the opera scene. I watch the singing tree over and over, and laugh every time.

    Seems you want this movie to be what it’s not intended to be. What else about rich quadriplegics and immigrants did you want to know?

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