The 2011 movie, The Intouchables is one of the best buddy movies I have ever seen. Until I saw it, I believed Hollywood was the master and virtually sole owner of that genre. But this is a French film. And, in its North American release, the French spelling of “untouchable” is left intact. The movie itself is untouchable it is so touching. And do not let anyone tell you it is simply a sentimental male to male friendship version of the delightful, but relatively simplistic, relationship of Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy.
The movie is uplifting. It is funny. It is surprising and very irreverent. And it is a great study of two characters, two characters with apparently very opposite personalities who truly become best buddies through the means of a flashback on how they came together and grew together. And the story, as told, is totally credible, even from the first opening chase scene of French cops in pursuit of two men racing at high speeds on the highways and roads of Paris to the totally farcical ending of that scene.
When I was much younger and traveling through Europe with my oldest daughter and her three year younger male sibling who was just about to enter his teen years, we were driving a Volkswagen camper van. We were coming from Britain and made our first stop in France at a Versailles gas station. We filled up the tank – or the attendant did – and we offered him our Canadian visa card to pay for the gas. He looked at the card and said, “Non, non, d’argent.” Even I could understood that. Recall, these were the early days of credit cards and it was possible that foreign visa cards were not acceptable at French service and retail establishments even though the symbol stuck to the window of the station was a replica of the colours and stripes on a visa card and clearly said “visa”.
I replied in English that I had no French money; I had not yet had a chance to go to a French bank to change dollars for francs – remember the days when there francs instead of euros. I even opened my wallet and my pockets as a gesture in mime to indicate they were empty of cash. He was clearly very disturbed and said, “Un moment.” I thought he went off to verify the card. He was gone for the longest time. Finally, he returned to insist he needed to be paid in cash and would not accept the credit card. I replied, in English, which he clearly did not understand, that I had nothing else with which to pay him.
My daughter intervened and took up the effort to explain our situation in French – she had gone to French school and was reasonably fluent. As the temperature of the discussion and its decibel count rose, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a French paddy wagon arrived. There had been no siren. Out of the back poured about sixteen French police fully armed with truncheons, body armour vests and helmets. My daughter then turned to them and repeated the explanation that she had been trying to deliver to the gas station attendant, but the exchange soon became as heated as the previous one. I started to laugh watching my fifteen-year-old daughter verbally deek it out with these French cops. I literally laughed so hard I had to sit down with my back against the van. Whenever I tried to stand and talk and intervene in the ongoing exercise in mutual misunderstanding, I would burst once again into uncontrollable laughter. Tears were literally flowing down my cheeks. After what seemed an interminable period, during which time I never could stop laughing, the police captain finally turned to the gas attendant and told him something with a Gaulic shrug. I interpreted the message to mean, “Accept the card.” Which the gas attendant reluctantly did and we went on our merry way.
Suffice to say that the opening scene of the movie and the chase scene ends up with the French police looking as foolish, but truly fooled, as that van full of armed cops pulling into that French gas station on the outskirts of Versailles. The memory is so vivid and so deeply part of our family lore that, when I see French cops, my smile is almost as large as that of the actor, Omar Sy who plays Driss (Bakary Bassan) in the movie. Omar Sy won the César Award for Best Actor based on his performance in Intouchables.
A buddy film need not be credible, only barely plausible. It can be either a hilarious farce or a light comedy. But this film was very real. It was and remains an honest buddy movie that made its comic moments even more delightful. And it felt authentic in spite of the matching of such an implausible pair. Perhaps it seemed authentic because the movie had two directors, not one, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. But the deeper reason was that the film was based on a documentary movie based on the relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his Algerian caregiver, in A la vie, à la morte.
Like many buddy movies, the characters are also different in age, class and race. One, François Cluzet as the rich Frenchman, Philippe, is an older very wealthy Frenchman and the other, Driss, an impoverished out-of-work and just out of prison Frenchman who immigrated as a kid from Senegal. Most of all, Philippe, is a quadriplegic who can only move his head. His body itself has lost all its powers of locomotion. In contrast, Driss seems to be almost all body – tall, lithe, all physical movement and somatic language, but with a smile as broad and open as Philippe’s is cramped and confined.
But these two unlikely true buddies most unexpectedly bond even as the friendship between an uncouth black immigrant’s child from the other side of the tracks working as Philippe’s caregiver grows and the servant gradually and voluntarily becomes the master of their often hilarious escapades together. In the movie, as is the custom in buddy movies, the relationship is frowned upon. After all, Philippe appreciates abstract fine art, opera and classical music. Some of the funniest scenes take place as Driss, in spite of himself, gradually acquires an appreciation of the “fine” arts while Philippe is released from the confines of his high-tech wheelchair to watch and experience a more Dionysian than Apollonian music and dance, and even use his new experiences to satirize the contemporary valuation of high art.
Normally buddy movies are asexual and totally sideline relationships with the opposite sex. This movie turns that sterile element of the genre on its head and the shaggy dog story running through the movie is all about sex between a man and a woman, with a lovely touch of whimsy in a back story told very briefly about a lesbian relationship. The buddy movie typically puts male Platonic relationships on a pedestal. This movie never displaces male-female relationships as the pinnacle of human experience, but not by idolizing it as Philippe did with his lovely, now dead, wife, but by fully embodying such relationships, by insisting they are fundamentally, though never exclusively, about men and women having sex, and sex of many varieties.
Norman Mailer’s Why We Are in Vietnam? A Novel, a road movie about a hunting trip of a father and son, was about the repressed and unacknowledged homosexuality underlying the bonding of men in times of conflict, violence and war. But there is not a single sign of homo-erotic love in the movie, even as the true love of Philippe and Driss for one another grows. Further, instead of allowing their repressed passions from aggravating one another and being transformed into dissing and teasing, the two challenge one another so that Philippe’s greatest success is in helping Driss overcome his fear of flying, both literally and even figuratively with respect to rising from his station in life that our lazy society permits and even encourages to remain frozen.
The movie even has symbolism, the ostensible sign of very high art, here in the form of a Fabergé egg, a bejewelled egg fixed in time and turned into a symbol of wealth but impotence, that Driss steals from Philippe near the beginning of the movie when he is being interviewed for the job. The egg reappears near the end of the film, but only after Philippe has been liberated to the extent possible from his stoic and immobile state. Most of all, the so-called repressed love that once had no name is the one relationship totally sidelined in the movie as, contrary to most buddy movies, earthy heterosexuality is celebrated even as the Dionysian wild man is as deprived of its deep joys as the character confined to a wheelchair. The female-male relationship is not simply used as a foil and contrast with the depth of feeling between two men.
The reason the film works so well is because it is not an escape fantasy, but an escape from the idols of the rich into the rich embodied life of those who struggle to survive and experience life in all its dangers. Further, the flow does not simply go one way. Driss, while uneducated and certainly unrefined, is a very bright and creative fellow who is also a quick learner and discovers both an appreciation of and how to use the refinements of the upper class for his own benefit.
I was brought up on buddy movies – Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello. The relationship between Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they travel down the Mississippi in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made that Mark Twain novel one of my all time favourites. I never became bored by buddy movies. Who can forget such oldies as Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider or the only twenty-year old versions, The Fisher King, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction and Weekend at Bernie’s? Even female buddy films such as Thelma and Louise delighted me almost as much as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether in the form of a Western or an action film, a road – think Bing Crosby and Bob – or a cop movie – recall almost the first that I can recall, 48 Hours with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy – when well done, buddy movies can be among the finest expression of the cinematic art. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple was one of my all time favourites. The Intouchables perhaps tops them all in sophistication combined with earthy humour, with subtlety married to broad farce, with appreciation as well as satire. It is no surprise that its original ten million or so dollars it took to make was rewarded with almost $500 million at the box office, not counting the rewards from watching the movie on the small screen via Netflix as I did in my second viewing the evening before last.
Watch it on Netflix. It won’t cost nearly as much as a Fabergé egg.