Intouchables - for its Stateside release, the title has been gifted with a frankly confusing "The", that I shall be studiously ignoring - is primarily significant for two reasons: prior to its American opening, it had already made more money, worldwide, than any other non-U.S./UK movie in history; and for his co-lead performance in the film, Omar Sy became the first black actor to win the Best Actor César. Not being a French person and not having been to France, but having gathered from news reports here and there that France is, of all Western European nations, the only one with racial problems nearly as thorny as those suffered by us Yanks, it amuses and - yes, I am a bad person - pleases me that we beat them to the punch on that front by a solid 48 years. It amuses me even more that Sy's victory was for exactly the kind of role Sidney Poitier so routinely was saddled with during his time of prime stardom: a bit too fully-realised to fall into the "Magical Negro" stereotype (which hadn't been identified yet in Poitier's day, and to my knowledge doesn't exist in France the way it does in America), but still an awfully convenient way for white artists to show off their own sensitivity and enlightenment. I'm not going to go so far as to say that Intouchables is France's answer to Crash - I'd like to think that France is incapable of a Crash - but it's not nearly as far from that as it ought to be. Awards-granting bodies, maybe, are the same all over the world.
(Now is the time to point out that French-Algerian Tamar Rahim won for Un prophète in 2009, and of course only an insane person would try to read problematic racial politics into that victory, which was absolutely well-deserved).
The issue I have with Intouchables is not, by the way, that it's racist - I do not have near enough knowledge to come anywhere near that claim, though I'll confess to getting a certain thrill from watching Jay Weissberg do so, violently - but that its so wheezy and old-fashioned, wallowing in narrative tropes that felt dated 30 years ago. Herein, we have rich quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet), who needs to hire a driver and general caretaker, and who immediately lands upon Driss (Sy), when the young man is the first and only candidate who doesn't treat Philippe like a broken husk of a man; in fact, he doesn't give much of a shit about Philippe or the job at all - he was just there to prove that he was "looking" for work - and this is exactly the prickly, lively attitude that Philippe has been looking for all this time. Before you can say "Hoke, you're my best friend", Driss has exposed the stuffy old man in the wheelchair to a whole new world of sights and sounds and given him a new vitality; and in the process, the young ex-hood learns quite a bit himself about being more responsible and caring to those around him.
By the way, even if we do not wish to accuse Driss of being a Magical Negro, surely we can understand why that perception could exist, oui?
But that's the last time I'll bring up race. It's not really necessary, anyway; make Driss a white kid from the streets, or an Arab (as he was in the real-life situation that inspired the movie), and the same whiskery old story beats get hit, and we end up with the same rich but closed-off old cripple learning to be his best self thanks to a charmingly crude ghetto elf. Putting subtitles on that scenario does not make it any less cloying or obvious, particularly to those, like your humble blogger, who have an inordinately low tolerance for feel-good buddy movies.
Insofar as Intouchables manages to not be completely bland and obvious and boring and feel-goodish without earning it, that is because Sy and Cluzet are an absolutely top-notch pair, playing off each other with giddiness and delight, sometimes swooning into the warm, gloppy parts of their friendship, sometimes tossing barbs and playing sharp games of one-upsmanship. That they are fine performers is not new; that they are not great actors is also not new. But they have outstanding camaraederie, and in a film like this, where the central relationship is not just key to the film's meaning but, in fact, the only reason the whole edifice exists in the first place, that is, arguably, the only thing that needs to function in order for the rest to work just fine. This is, at least, the argument that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets sold all over the world have implicitly made, that the mere pleasure of watching a rich white paraplegic and a poor black ex-gangbanger banter with each other and be nice is all the justification the movie needs.
Far be it from me to deny anyone their pleasure. I simply do not partake in and see no reason to assume I'm missing out. Even if we straight-out ignore the race and class elements that make this such a dismayingly square and regressive jaunt, and if we don't mind the jaw-dropping clichés around every turn - does the urban black kid get a room full of white people in formal wear to start dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire? Bet your ass - there's still the open question: what have co-directors and co-writers Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano done with this to make it worth my while? Why is this going make me feel any more good than every other feel-good movie that exists? Where is that special spark that gives this film more insight, more human feeling, more, I don't know gun battles and gay ninjas? What makes this special? The answer, as far as I can make out, is nothing at all, and if all I wanted was to see a film about two people liking each other and not challenging me about it, I could see that in my own damn language, and maintain my inflated opinion of the value of French cinema.
Have you helped Tim fight cancer? Donate to the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction! The fundraiser ends 18 June, 2015!
And thanks to everyone who has donated so far!
And thanks to everyone who has donated so far!