Writer-directors Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s “The Intouchables”, a politically incorrect but heartfelt buddy comedy is second only to “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” as France’s biggest recent Box Office draw.
It’s done $340 million worldwide.
The comedy which has taken France and Germany by storm is based on the true story of French businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his Algerian caregiver Yasmin Abdel Sellou, Pozzo di Borgo became a quadriplegic in 1993 following a para-glider accident. The filmmakers saw a documentary based on his autobiography “The Second Wind.”
Pozzo di Borgo, the fifth son of the Corsican Duke Pozzo di Borgo, also lost his beloved wife, spiraling into a deep depression when she suicided. In the book, he describes ex-con Yasmin as “my guardian devil.” “We were two desperadoes who sought a means of escape: the rich tetra (plegic), mad with grief at losing his wife and the young gang leader who comes out of jail and wants to blow everything up.Two guys on the fringes of society who rely on each other.” The caregiving relationship lasted 10 years and the men remain close friends.
Philippe (François Cluzet “Tell No One” “‘Round Midnight”) lives in almost Second Empire luxury, staffed to the nines. Paralysed from the neck down, he suffers acute phantom pains and, still numb from his wife’s death, the closest he can come to a relationship with a woman is a long distance, neo-Victorian correspondence.
Philippe runs an ad for a caregiver. A long line of professional applicants appears at his palatial Saint-Germain-des-Prés mansion, where assistants Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) and Marcelle (Clotilde Mollet) interview and instruct them in Philippe’s needs.
When cocky Driss (Omar Sy-“Micmacs”), a ghetto wise Senegalese immigrant, shows up, his candor and radical viewpoints amuse Philippe, imprisoned in his body, his chair and his hushed bourgeois lifestyle.
Driss, who lives with an extended family in a banlieue housing project, needs to look for work to qualify for state assistance. He doesn’t even want the job. He’ll only qualify if he’s turned down. With nothing to lose, he’s all Id, a primitive in a drawing room farce. As opposed to the careful applicants with their patently rehearsed answers, cheeky Driss even hits on Philippe’s gorgeous secretary, Magalie. (For as long as he lives there, optomistic Driss hits on Magalie who gives as good as she gets.)
Philippe’s entranced. Driss’ sheer life force is the proverbial file baked into a cake, an escape route for a prisoner in solitary. To everyone’s astonishment he hires the arrogant non-pro.
When Driss comes back to pick up his rejection letter, he’s offered a trial-run as a live-in caregiver. Moving into his luxe suite, Driss is told, “the last guy didn’t last two weeks.”
Aghast, Philippe’s high born lawyer Antoine (Grégoire Oestermann) warns him that Driss did time in jail for theft, and that people from the ghetto have no pity. Philippe rejoices” Philippe says, “That’s exactly it. He doesn’t pity me.”
Unburdened by PC and professional caregiver’s ethics, they are free to craft a friendship. Just two bored guys together.
From here on in, we sit an enjoys a series of comic turns. First Driss rejects Philippe’s state-of-the- art accessible van. He’s got his eye on a disused Maserati Quattroporte. Their first jubilant ride down down the Champs-Elysees is pure sixties comedy.
A buddy film relies on chemistry between the leads, and this pair has it in spades. The script uses some cheap shots and stereotypes (diffusing them as it goes) but the formidable good will the duo build up fills the sails of each and every gag.
It’s irresistible. Clouzot’s underplayed choice lines and Sy’s committed physical charm build laughable layers to their rapscallion tough love relationship. Nakache and Toledano hit all the right buttons, gleaning great personality from somewhat formulaic roots. They meet, they scrap, they make up. Driss matures, adapting to his new environment. He even develops an unlikely innate talent for painting, which Philippe parlays into a cash windfall for Sy, auctioning off his abstract art to some of his collector cronies.
Driss conquers Philippe’s phantom pain. He gets him out of the house.
They GQ it up and take a spin that leads to a cop chase and a ticket beating alibi that left the audience cheering.
Driss manages to get real with Philippe’s spoiled rotten daughter Elisa (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) putting her relationship with Philippe back on course.
The pair turn each other on to their favorite music. Sy gives full attention to Philippe’s birthday Chamber Orchestra, before putting an Earth, Wind and Fire CD in the player and rockin the joint.
Learning about Philippe’s timid epistilatory courtship of Eleanore, he forces the situation. He calls her in Dunkirk and puts Philippe on the phone. Charmed, she asks for photo. Afraid of rejection, Philippe sends her a pre-wheelchair picture of himself, and at their arranged meeting, Philippe bails before Eleanor arrives.
Help flows both ways. When Driss’s younger brother Adama (Cyril Mendy) hides out at the house to evade a ghetto gang, Driss tells Phillippe about their dysfunctional dead-end lifestyle. Gracious Phillippe encourages Driss to get a more professional job. Hired by a transport company he succeeds in his new line of work.
But Phillippe suffers, sinking back into his pre-Driss depression as a series of condescending do-gooder caregivers make his life intolerable. A reunion and a parting gift from Sy gives Phipippe the next stage of his life adventure.
Magnetic Omar Sy (Nakache and Toledano’s “So Close”) won the Best Actor César (against Jean Dujardin.) He’s a truly gifted actor. You can’t take your eye’s away from him. Bursting with energy, he dance’s up a memorable storm. Nakache and Toledano , who cast Sy in a series of shorts and “So Close”, were looking for another vehicle for their discovery. They rewrote his part from a Morroccan Arab to a Senegalese-born Frenchman. François Cluzet (actually the directors’ second choice) does the impossible, holding his own with a rising star, without moving a muscle. His wheel-chair bound perf is unforgettable.
The Intouchables received nine nominations at the 37th César Awards.
Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, the actual caretaker, appear in the end title sequence.