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‘Intouchables’

What to make of hit French film's opaque racial agenda?

by Kaori Shoji

It’s often said that the Japanese are blissfully ignorant of race issues that occur in the West while being overly (sometimes absurdly) alert to those same issues at home, even as they have no idea how to deal with them. With this in mind, it’s a little tempting to think what would happen if a remake of “Intouchables” happened on these shores.

“Intouchables” goes like this: A rich Parisian paraplegic bonds with his caretaker, a Senegalese ex-con immigrant from the projects, and the pair have great fun together as well as stock up on some valuable life lessons. “Intouchables” has taken over $350 million worldwide, becoming the most successful film in French cinema history and the world’s highest-grossing film in a language other than English.

Would a Japanese filmmaker have the clout to make a similar story, say between a wealthy entrepreneur and a Filipino caregiver? Not likely to happen, at least for the next half-century or so.

On the other hand, “Intouchables” came in for its fair share of fire-and-brimstone criticism from the French press and beyond, with some suggesting it has racist undertones. Interestingly, critics in the United States kind of shrugged their shoulders about these racial issues (with the exception of a scathing review in Variety that accused it of “the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens”). Maybe this is because movies that deal with race are so been-there-done-that in Hollywood, and are often smash hits (“The Help,” anyone?). No wonder the film has been nicknamed “Driving Monsieur Daisy.”

The film’s phenomenal success leads me to believe that the French are tired of the traditional kind of French movies: What they really want to see is something made in the Hollywood tradition but with their own stars, speaking French.

“Intouchables” fits the bill: a fast-paced, lively feel-good drama, studded with more jokes than a cookie has chocolate chips. One in three people in France have seen this movie since its release there last year.

When you consider the long history of humorless French movies featuring stony-visaged, chain-smoking, trench coat-clad men and women exchanging long, meaningful looks, you can understand the French would want a change sometimes. No one wears trench coats in “Intouchables,” and directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have created a bright, airy Paris where the sky is always a brilliant blue, golden light streams in through high windows and the cast prefer driving fast to lingering in cafes.

Philippe (François Cluzet) is a Parisian zillionaire who has everything a man can ask for, with the exception of two things: his beloved wife, who died some years ago, and the use of his limbs. Philippe was the victim of bad paragliding accident and must now be bathed, groomed, fed and wheelchaired around, 24/7.

His household staff and devoted friends advise him to hire a carer, and after interviewing a bevy of professionals with impressive resumes, he engages the inexperienced Driss (Omar Sy), who had only showed up to get a signature for his unemployment benefits. “But these street guys have no pity,” a friend warns Philippe. “Good — I don’t want any,” he replies.

Driss turns out to be pretty incapable, but Philippe values his robust health, his love for constant motion and his infectious zest for life much more than his nursing skills.

Driss for his part is stoked to get a sumptuous bedroom to use as his very own, and to have a real, respectable job. Having no prior experience with either high-class society or nursing, Driss also has no hangups about Philippe’s wealth or status. His passions run to beautiful girls; Earth, Wind & Fire; and fast cars. This is precisely why Philippe likes Driss, recognizing the fact that this tall African immigrant, who wields the spoon for his crème brûlée spoon with disarming awkwardness, could just be the only person on Earth who will treat him like a man.

“Intouchables” doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls such a story inevitably faces. But expertly portrayed by Cluzet, Philippe’s attitude toward Driss varies from wry to rude and sardonic — and never patronizing. After a lifetime of privilege and now residing in an apartment filled with gorgeous antiques and fine art, Philippe comes off as a man who has relinquished the desire to get ahead or feel superior, and is now ready to learn something from life’s hard knocks.

Driss has nothing but the hoodie on his back, but he does have the physical freedom to walk out the door if he chooses, and the strength of spirit to reject money and social status. Between the pair, there is no power play and no politics — just the beginnings of an enduring friendship. Call it fluffy idealism, but without it, “Intouchables” would be a bitter and lonely film.