The Intouchables: Lost in Translation?

You know a movie is popular when you arrive early and people are already lining up outside the cinema. You know it’s very popular when the manager decides to open up a second theater to accommodate the crowds. Such was my experience of the French film Les Intouchables when I saw it in 2011 with a student group in France.

Based on a true story, Les Intouchables presents Philippe (François Cluzot), a wealthy Parisian who is paralyzed from the neck down following a paragliding accident. Dissatisfied with his caregivers and with life in general, he decides to hire Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese immigrant who grew up poor in a suburban housing project and has just served six months in prison for robbery.

Philippe is highly refined and Driss is crudely crass; their differences are the source of much humor. This very odd couple ends up forming a deep friendship, crossing their racial and social differences and helping Philippe to enjoy life again. Omar Sy’s high-energy performance and first-rate comic timing earned him a César (France’s equivalent of an Oscar) for best actor, a first for a French black actor.

Despite the backing of producer Harvey Weinstein, who helped turn The Artist, another French hit, into an Oscar-winner, The Intouchables was a flop in America. Why? I suspect early negative reviews that accused the movie of racism.

Margaret and David of Australia’s “At the Movies” noted, for example: “There’s the touch of Driving Miss Daisy in the idea of an uneducated black man bringing love and excitement into the life of his employer. Driving Miss Daisy was a period piece, and The Intouchables is set in the present, when racial stereotyping . . . is less acceptable.”

While the movie is far from perfect (blatant product placements, gratuitous sexual content, and language, some obvious “feel-good” moments), I think critics missed the point.

The movie’s real focus is its refreshing treatment of physical, emotional, and class-related handicaps. The men learn from each other to pull out of themselves and face loved ones they have been selfishly avoiding. And the excellent chemistry between Cluzot and Sy far outweighs the film’s predictable buddy-movie plotting.

Even though The Intouchables may have been lost and forgotten in American theaters, I hope its recent release on DVD will give it a second chance.

About the Author

Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

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