The Intouchables or Intouchables (2011)
Living at the end of the world, The Intouchables or Intouchables (2011) has only just reached me. In another world, I might have died before I had the chance. Such are the uncertainties of life for those of us who have grown old and/or are disabled. We live from day to day with little to distinguish one from the next. Time blurs. Those of us with a less positive view wait with whatever patience we can muster for the end. We daydream, thinking back to how life used to be before our bodies let us down. When we were young, little seemed impossible. We ran and jumped. If we fell, there was someone to pick us up. The body healed itself. We never gave it a second thought. Then for people like Philippe (François Cluzet) in this film, all that is over in an instant. For him, it was an accident while paragliding. For us oldies, it’s the slow descent into physical incompetence. It starts with little things like twinges in the joints when we decide we can catch the bus if we run, and develops into the need to take life at a more sedate pace. We have to assess whether we can get up again if we crouch down, or will fall down if we stand up too quickly. And all this time we have to live with the memories of what it was like to live in a body that obeyed us without conscious thought. Being deprived of that freedom leaves us trapped in the body as a kind of prison. At least I can still move around. Philippe is a quadriplegic so the prison is escape-proof.
The other protagonist, Driss (Omar Sy), is just as much a prisoner but for entirely different reasons. At an early age, he was sent over to France to be adopted by his Uncle and Aunt. Unfortunately, the previously childless couple then produced a family. This left Driss out in the emotional cold. He grows up in one of les banlieues, I use the word to describe one of the Parisienne sink estates largely populated by the poor in high-density, low-quality accommodation. He’s immersed in a culture of prejudice and intolerance, and grows into a victimised adult living up to the middle and upperclass expectations of surly dependence. No-one gives him a chance so he’s socially alienated, powerless and deeply resentful. When he’s sent to a job interview as a carer, he’s only going through the motions to gain access to the benefit payments. Indeed, he never expects to return to this upperclass home again, which is why he feels free to steal one of the Fabergé eggs openly displayed. It therefore comes as something of a shock to him when he’s offered the job. This nicely catches him in the benefit trap. If he turns down the offer, he’s barred from claiming benefits. To preserve his rights he must work for not less than two weeks and not be dismissed. To complete the culture shock, he must live in and, for the first time in his life, actually gets a bathroom of his own.
Why should a rich man hire such a “useless specimen of humanity” as his carer? The answer comes through the interviews with the other men applying for the job. Without exception, they are completely useless. Indeed, if anyone like them applied for a job as my carer, I would be reaching for my gun (assuming I was not a quadriplegic, of course). There’s something genuinely appalling about the smug and sanctimonious air of do-goodery that afflicts many professional carers. They give the impression they are doing you a favour by even sharing the same air as you. Driss, on the other hand, is oblivious to Philippe’s injury and has absolutely no pity in his reaction to meeting him. It’s a collision between a dependent male barely hanging on to his self-confidence and a young man who’s never had to take responsibility for himself. It later becomes apparent that Driss has always been protective of the children who replaced him in the affection of his adoptive parents. To that limited extent, he’s been a carer. This job is rather different because it involves personal nursing at the sharp end of personal functions — not something Driss has ever thought about in dealing with adults. For him, life is simple. If it’s female, talk her into agreeing to sex. If it’s male and doing something against the “rules”, make your feelings clear by hitting him.
It’s the incongruity of the relationship that makes it so fascinating. They are both men on the margins of society. For Philippe, his disability is a barrier to genuine emotions from his old friends and current colleagues. Their pity offers him nothing but the loss of hope. This invader provides the kind of adventure he never thought he could have again. He’d been a thrill seeker and then found himself wrapped in cotton wool to protect him against even the possibility of further injury. For Driss, his feet are set on the path to career criminal. He will end up either dead or in jail for the rest of his life. This introductory period is nothing more than a burden to be endured until he can safely leave and collect his benefit. Somewhere in the middle, there’s the possibility of minds meeting, a compromise between the cloistered world of classical music and opera where trees burst into song in German and take root on stage for four hours, and a man who thinks Earth, Wind & Fire is a classic group. What then happens is a delightful comedy. Not in the crude, slapstick sense of laughing at a disabled man, but in allowing humour to emerge from the tragedy of the situations as they apply to both men.
Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, The Intouchables or Intouchables has collected multiple international awards including the César Award for Best Actor for Omar Sy. For those of you interested in the mundane details, it’s based on the real-world figures Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou. Philippe has remarried. Abdel has settled down and is running his own chicken farm which, in a perverse kind of way, seems entirely appropriate for someone who was up to his elbows in Philippe’s shit for several years. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012 and it’s rightly the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for the 85th Academy Awards. If you have not already done so, you should make every effort to see this film.