The Intouchables

The Intouchables


Howard Adelman

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.


Howard Adelman
Fury is a buddy war movie that is at once gritty and gripping, terrifying and tense. There are plenty of war movies – The Pianist is one – but war buddy movies are a special sub-genre. Like all buddy war movies – The Dirty Dozen, Inglorious Bastards, The Monuments Men – the issue is NOT individual survival, me versus them, but us versus them. Because the individual in war will not survive unless buddies are watching his back.
“Fury” is the name of the tank that becomes as much a character as any of the people portrayed by actors. In Fury, an American Sherman tank crew that has been together since North Africa are fighting their way into Germany against the final stubborn resistance of the Germans on their own soil. One of the crew has just been killed. He is being replaced by a totally inexperienced young soldier who has, until then, been a typist in the military command headquarters. The impact of this tale is enhanced by a subplot of this young soldier, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), maturing into manhood, defined as experienced in both sex and the art of cold blooded killing, and gradually being accepted by the rest of the crew. However, as the leader of the tank crew says at the beginning to the novice, “I had the best gunner in the entire United States Army in that seat. Now I have you.” The challenge is set at the very start of the movie.
This buddy war movie is at once a throwback to an older, purer expression of tough man masculinity as well as a very contemporary movie in its theme. There is no touchy-feely figure in the whole crew – except for the novice who has to lose both his virginity and his acute sensitivity. But he is a modern figure for he can openly say that he is afraid to die. The members of the crew learn to respect one another. They never learn to love one another even after the ordeal they go through. They care deeply but not so deeply that their ability to kill the enemy is compromised.
There is a reason which Bible (Shia LaBeouf as Boyd Swan) reveals near the end of the film when he quotes: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” In the end, they are all doing the Lord’s work and, hence, cannot love the things of this world. One is surprised how this gritty story of hard-headed battle-weary grunts turns into a metaphysical and religious treatise.
Nor is this a buddy movie that tries to communicate that it is colour blind by including one member of the crew who is black. Instead, every member of the crew is metaphorically black. This is a film that is muddy more than it is earthy, a real paean to the horrors of real war that is set in a time in America when four white guys would not share the close claustrophobic quarters of the inside of a tank with a fifth black man. They have a hard enough time sharing their quarters with a bookish innocent youth, Norman, who could be Jewish. After all, he shares his last name with Lawrence “Larry” Ellison, the third richest man in America who turned the software of relational databases into the brilliant success of Oracle. God may no longer speak directly to Jews now, but in assimilating into the American heritage of the more mathematical Greeks, Oracle became a portal through which the gods speak directly to people. This is Norman’s role in the film.
The Bible serves as this bridging role. For this is still a multicultural movie because the crew includes the religious soldier nicknamed Bible, a lapsed Christian, Don “Wardaddy” Collier played brilliantly by Brad Pitt who commands the crew, and a strident atheist, the foul-mouthed vicious Arkansas cracker (Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis played by Jon Bernthall) as both the literal and metaphorical loader of the heavy explosive missives that the Americans fire at the Germans. There is also a Mexican (Michael Peña as Trina “Gordo” Garcia) from the south-west. The regional as well as religious differences of America are respected, but are left uncooked and underdone to add to the emphasis on the need for unity and mutual support.
However, though the men come from different backgrounds, display different degrees of intelligence and sophistication, and though they have very different personalities, the development of the film does not arise from the clashes between and among them, but through the growing respect that the novice earns from his fellow crewmen. Contrast this with Full Metal Jacket where R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant training new marine recruits on Parris Island has to cope with the uncoordinated and clumsy fat dough boy, Gomer Pyle, who surprises everyone by becoming and expert marksman and sniper. Fury, instead, is a story of the UNITED States of America, where Americans, including the sergeant – who, incidentally, speaks German – fight together and to the death to vanquish the enemy. It is a throwback in its stark patriotism while, at the same time, discarding all the clichéd versions of patriotism into the dustbin of history,
This film does not belong to the patriotic fifties when what you mainly saw of Americans fighting in Germany was a portrait of US soldiers marching into Italian and German towns to be welcomed by flag waving locals joyous at being liberated by the Yanks. In Fury, the troops are met with booby traps, a sullen and defeated population, and disciplined SS troops determined to fight to the last man and enforcing that discipline by hanging corpses of German men and women on lampposts because they refused to fight for the fatherland in the dying days of the war.
This is not a film that either glorifies the enemy or denigrates it as in the even worse anti-anti-Patriotic movies of the sixties did as the Vietnam War ramped up. The Patriotic movies portrayed heroes, like John Wayne in the 1968 The Green Berets, as a total artificial construct, an unbelievable fantasy of history that bore no relation to reality. That movie glorifies the US presence in Vietnam and portrayed the Viet Cong as sadistic sicko bastards while the Americans were compassionate humanitarian gum-chewing lovers of children. Contrast that film with Michael Cimino’s 1978 ambiguous but tremendous tale of war as a story of love and loss with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Cazale as the three Pennsylvania buddies in The Deer Hunter. The era of the anti-patriotic war movie culminated in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now, the remake of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness transformed into a vivid cynical hallucinatory and ultimate acid trip.
In Fury, defeating the enemy is just a job that has to be done and only the SS are caricatured as evil and worthy of being slaughtered even after they have surrendered. There is no sense that the Geneva laws of war were operational. Though there are moments of humanity, the most poignant by a German (I cannot disclose the scene without giving away a key emotional moment in the movie), but the overall sense is the sheer brutality of war.
Like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, David Ayer’s Fury is equally graphically violent. However, while this film resembles the former in miring the war in mud, it is not set in a period when courageous Americans, as well as Aussies, Brits, Canadians, and Kiwis, stormed ashore on the beaches of Normandy to finally free Europe from the iron grip of the Nazis. There, the heroism, as in Fury, is set in the very minor mundane tasks of war, but the question that hangs over the whole of Fury in the inglorious final days of the war is not the preservation of a very ordinary soldier as a precious individual, but the question: “Is the loss of even one other life worth it?”
As a buddy film, the crisis of masculinity is at the centre. And it revolves around courage – how archaic is that! Further, this courage in the face of death is not diluted by including clashes related to class and region, ethnicity and belief. These differences are mere peccadilloes, items of interest that allow the members of the tank crew to dis one another. In fact, that is how the movie starts – by getting you to believe that this may be a film that is loyal to its genre by placing the tension between alpha males at the centre of the movie. But this movie has only one alpha male, Wardaddy. And no one challenges him – except in minor skirmishes and asides.
Further, the message of the film is contemporary. Instead of “Thou shalt not kill,” the key value taught is, “Thou shall kill.” Further, instead of the film introducing compassion in the midst of violence and conflict, the compassion these fellows feel for one another is held in check. For if they feel too much – either for each other or for the enemy – they are through. They are finished.
But the film, true to its heritage, is still about heroism. Though the movie has only one alpha male, there are two heroes, Wardaddy, who holds a key crossroads against enormous odds, and, Norman, who is inducted into the ways of war and survives. The hero who lives and the hero who dies – that is what war is about in spite of these men initially being alien with and to one another. As Eversmann says in Black Hawk Down, the story of the 18 rangers from the American Elite Delta Force whose helicopter was brought down by a rocket fired by the Somali version of the Taliban in Mogadishu, “Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way.” As Bible quotes, “And I heard the voice of Lord saying: Whom shall I send and who will go for Us? And I said: Here am I, send me!” Then Wardaddy intones, Isaiah Chapter 6, clearly indicating he is very familiar with the Bible.
Brad Pitt plays a traditional hero – braver, tough and fairer – whose only goal is ensuring the survival of his men while he, willingly and without question, carries out the orders of his superiors. He refuses to get too close to them, though sensitive to their needs, but trumping that sensitivity with the greater demands of what is required to win a war. Wardaddy is a traditional hero played against the foil of a soldier who has to learn to become a warrior if not a Wardaddy. This process is set within the tension between loyalty to orders from above and loyalty to the soldiers below and under his command.
Contrast that with The Lone Survivor, a 2013 American war buddy movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Eric Bana. As in Fury, there is only one survivor after the ordeal the men go through when this Navy Seal team’s efforts to take out a senior Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah, in Afghanistan goes awry. Though both films are realistic, there is no effort of Fury to accurately represent an actual historical event. In contrast, The Lone Survivor is based on detailed eyewitness accounts and tries to be an accurate representation of what took place. Members of the Navy Seals even served as technical consultants on set. Compare that to Fury which is really a character more than an event movie.
The two movies are even more radically distinct in another respect. The Lone Survivor uses digital photography shooting with Red epic cameras with their detailed pixilation to allow the movie to more accurately represent a landscape or a human face. Fury uses old fashioned photography to give us a better sense of a WWII movie than the contemporary graphics of digital photography. Fury thus echoes film history more than real history. Black Hawk Down: Leave No Man Behind is another contemporary war movie in the vein of The Last Survivor rather than Fury.
There are war buddy movies intended to recapture a particular historical moment that are as tense and gripping as Fury, but others, such as The Monument Men, can be almost a total bore because history imprisons the film rather than releases it to do its wonders. The Monument Men is a pastiche of clichés about the works of art standing for the freedom for which the West has fought. In that movie, there is not even a tip of the hat to critical theorists like Walter Benjamin who viewed the cultural treasures of bourgeois Europe as spoils to be fought over by the retreating German army, the advancing Soviets and the small strange crew of Americans who recognized the value of art. The film portrays the competition, but, instead of seeing the event through cynical or critical eyeglasses, it glorifies the America victory and the heroes give the art works back to their rightful owners.
Fury enhances the tension with its rich echoes of cinematic and even religious history as it reaches for a much more monumental and prophetic goal. The prophecy comes in intimate moments when Norman reads the palm of the first love of his life, a beautiful German girl, Emma, played by Alicia von Rittberg, and tells her, “You see this right here? That is your heart line. You’re gonna have one great love in your life.” Though you can imagine them as spending the rest of their lives together, deep down, given the bleak tone of the movie, you know your romantic inclinations will be crushed. For ideals belong to peacetime. War is cruel and violent. Not only is it violent and cruel, but everything is determined by fate.
By the twenty-first century, realism replaced and displaced the self-indulgence of star movie directors with a new kind of buddy war movie like the 2008 release, The Hurt Locker, but the innovation actually began earlier on television in the serial, Band of Brothers and was continued in the mini-series, the intertwined story of three marines fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theatre and simply called Pacific. However, Fury is a better film than The Hurt Locker, and the latter earned a fistful of Academy Awards, including one for Kathryn Bigelow, its director.
Both movies are totally raw, immediate and extremely visceral and gut wrenching. Both films laud instinct and raw guts. Wardaddy has the same steely calm and strength, the same confidence and unpredictability as the IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) military defuser in The Hurt Locker. Both films were not shot digitally with special effects, but on real film, The Hurt Locker with Super 8s. This, along with the sound recordings of the echoes inside the tank or the breathing during the tense moments when a bomb is being disarmed, enhance the realism of each movie.

However, the two films are also quite different. The reasons are many. Fury sticks to realism, unlike the mysticism of Karen Shakhnazarov’s 2012 Russian film White Tiger that also takes place in the final stages of WWII when inferior allied tanks were sent to do battle with better armoured and better equipped German monstrosities. The Hurt Locker, with all its emphasis on realism in its sensibilities and perspectives and the omission of special effects, and through the use of hand-held cameras to create the feeling of disorientation, is an exercise in super-realism. The scenes in Fury are true to the way tank battles take place. The Hurt Locker has gut-wrenching immediacy and spell-binding suspense, but the narrative has little similarity with the way IED’s are actually disarmed – usually as remotely as possible and where the actual handling of an explosive device by a human is very rare indeed. IED disposal units do not operate as three-man autonomous units without radios. However, not only is the narrative manipulated to serve the emotional intensity of the movie, but so is the story. The Hurt Locker uses the sharp cuts and the jerkiness of the camera to evoke nausea in the viewer. In Fury, when Norman vomits, we experience his repulsion as any observer would, but we do not feel nauseous ourselves.

Finally, Fury has gravitas like Apocalypse Now, but a seriousness that arises from the mud of war rather than revealed by a super nova. The Hurt Locker rises above the microscopic perspectives, but only to offer a macroscopic physical perspective. The macroscopic viewpoint of Fury comes from verbal asides and biblical quotations that are metaphysical rather than just physical perspectives. Thus, though The Hurt Locker was lauded for its portrayal of the brutish and cruel realities of war, it does not take the actual route of authenticity.

In addition to harking back to the set pieces of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, The Hurt Locker is an adrenaline soaked movie in which war is just the other side of sex, a thesis that Norman Mailer first put forth in his WWII novel, The Naked and the Dead, but the unity evoked is not between a man and a woman but between a band who become brothers through butchery. In The Hurt Locker, men take enormous pleasure in the testosterone fuelling of battles. In Fury they get to accept it and even enjoy killing enemy soldiers but they never get their rocks off by killing, even though fellow soldiers may laugh at a novice forced to kill for the first time. Finally, the miniscule space of the insides of a tank evokes, not the greatness of humans, but the pitiful miniscule role they play in the universe. The tank is the real home for men and offers the best job anyone could ever want.

Would you take it?


Philomena as a Buddy Movie – [NO SPOILER ALERT]

Though Philomena is a road movie and a romance in the literary sense, a detective story and a buddy movie, I will focus on the latter. The film is an unusual buddy movie, for instead of two men, it is a travel movie about a woman and a man. The value of characterizing the genre of the movie is that it helps one understand, first, why some material is included in the movie, while other material is excluded. Thus, in Philomena, the scene with Mary, though it does not advance the plot one whit, does throw light on the theme. Further, there is no scene that portrays the real life regret of Philomena for what she failed to do to find her son. That would have undermined rather than transformed the genre. Secondly, by understanding the genre characteristics, we are able to use movies as a public art form to track the changing Zeitgeist.

Buddy movies are usually the complement to chicflics and are mostly about two men travelling together, except when they are about two gay guys as in the 2005 movie, Brokeback Mountain, a buddy movie which is also a chicflic. Male buddy movies are about macho adolescent men pretending to be adults trying to keep their male bonding from becoming homosexual. In recent years, creative writers and directors have tried to invert the male buddy movie where instead of celebrating alpha male for their attractiveness, physical strength and social status, mock those same traits.

But, though rare, there are also buddy movies with two females in the lead. Female buddy movies are usually a variation of a chic-flic obsessed with getting “The Man I Love”. Though Billy Holliday’s version of the song depicts that man as a woman beater and a real loser, he is still “the man I love”.

Bette Midler and Shelley Long in the Arthur Hiller 1987 Outrageous Fortune, are two striving actresses, rivals on and off stage, one brash and the other serious. They travel across America in search of a lover they unknowingly shared who faked his own death. They are followed by both CIA agents and Russian assassins. When they find their lost love, he does not choose between them but tries to kill both of them. It is a great romp.

In a satire about the quest for eternal youth and eternal life, Meryl Streep, a self-absorbed and ambitious actress, Madeline Ashton, who will do anything to stay on top, and Goldie Hawn, the writer Helen Sharp, are also rivals in the 1992 movie Death Becomes Her. It is a movie hard to forget because Meryl Street ends up with her twisted backwards and Goldie Hawn ends up with a body with a huge hole in her midriff. The object of their rivalry is Bruce Willis, a plastic surgeon, and Goldie’s beau. Bruce is smitten with Meryl when they meet and Meryl covets Bruce simply because he “belongs” to Goldie. Further, Meryl is who she is – vain, self-centred and willing to do anything to best her rival. Meryl wins. Goldie ends up in a mental hospital as an obese wreck who cannot forget her double betrayal. She fakes sanity and gets released to try to enact her plot for revenge. But by then, Meryl is a has-been and Bruce is reduced to dressing corpses for a mortician. It is a darker comedy than Outrageous Fortune and gets darker and darker and more hilarious as the movie progresses and the two “bionic” women are forced to live together and literally destroy one another. This female buddy movie has the common ingredients of rivalry, a quest, betrayal, and the total and absolute inversion of romantic love.

Kirsten Dunst who plays Betsy Jobs, the daughter of a wealthy socialite, and Michelle Williams who plays Arlene Lorenzo, the poor one who happens to live in the Watergate Hotel with her mother, in the 1999 comedy Dick, is a satire of Tricky Dick, Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair. Two 15 year old girls who are best friends are revealed as the Deep Throat. In the movie, the two of them are unintentionally responsible for the discovery of the robbery. In order to preserve the secret, they are absurdly hired as Nixon’s dog walker and, like Forrest Gump, inadvertently are responsible for key events in history. The absence of rivalry, a real chase and the absence of betrayal make this a less than satisfying buddy movie as well as a failure at satire. 

The 2008 Michael McCulers movie, Baby Mama, is really a chicflic that ends up as a female buddy movie. Tina Fey is a career woman (Kate Holbrook) who discovers she cannot have a baby and hires Amy Poehler, an obnoxious twenties something adolescent, Angie Ostrowski, to be her surrogate. From a mutually dependent but resentful relationship, the two women become bitter rivals and then, through unbelievable coincidences, best friends. Baby Mama  is also a tale of rivalry, a quest for a future through love, dapper dressing and a romantic ending.

 Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in The Heat offer another female buddy movie. That’s just about it. Thelma and Louise is not included because the two women play the usual role of male buddies in a robbery film. If buddy movies with two women are few and far between, buddy movies with male and female leads are truly rare.

Philomena  is a male-female buddy movie about two fellow travellers coming from very different stations in life (Oxbridge versus working class) and having very different characters, but struggling to find common ground. However, there is no sexual innuendo between the two characters at all, though the whole story is really about the joy of sex – male and female sex and gay sex, and about the Catholic Church’s hatred of sexuality and the movie’s celebration of the unitary construction of gender and sexuality in a way that no gay movie has yet accomplished. For it is a movie that brackets the whole issue of marriage and relegates it to a sidebar. We never see or even hear of Philomena’s husband, the father of her two daughters.

Contrast this movie with some old classic possible precursors – Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance in Howard Hawks 1938 Bringing Up Baby. Cary Grant is an academic unworldly paleontologist who becomes the target of Katherine’s affections as the two pursue a million dollar donation for the museum to get the missing bone for Cary Grant’s brontosaurus. The baby in question is a leopard, a charge of Katherine Hepburn’s. Cary Grant is engaged to a straight-laced Alice Swallow played by Katherine Hepburn’s rival in the film, Virginia Walker. Katherine sets her sights on Cary Grant and keeps him as a virtual prisoner and care giver for “Baby” so he cannot travel to his wedding. There are the usual plot twists and turns to ensure that love does not go smoothly, but in the end it does. This is really a romantic comedy and not much of a buddy movie of any kind for the female rival, Cary Grant’s fiancé is shifted into the background.

VeronicaLake travelling in the guise of a boy with Joel McRea in Sullivan’s Travels could be said to be a buddy movie with a male and a female, but since the female is disguised as a male, it doesn’t count. Again, it is really simply a romantic comedy. Can you think of another buddy movie with a male and female as the buddies?

Philomena is such a buddy movie. However, it is not a film about the dialectic of life and desire, survival and passion, but about passion, that whatever its tragic turn, remains forcefully and determinately wedded to life. But most surprising of all, wedded to Christian charity, love and self-sacrifice in stark juxtaposition with the Catholic Church. What remains true of all buddy movies is that this film, though focused on Judi Dench as the instrument for the transformation, is as much focused on her wise-cracking, cynical and unbelieving journalist travel companion and his transformation.

As with any buddy movie, there is the usual series of crises so you do not know whether the movie will end in tears or with laughter, while all the while you are certain that, since this is a buddy movie and a romance in the literary sense, it has to end on an up note. Part of the quiet tension is watching to see how this is achieved. How are love, sex and gender dilemmas worked through in the modern world? In Philomena, to one’s surprise, they are not worked through. They are just there, accepted in all their variations, but in high tension with the Irish Jansenist Catholic Church and its misogyny, duplicity, inhumanity and absolute amorality. But Philomena is a true believer and forgives the patriarchal nuns and priests who perpetuated these corrupt beliefs. Philomena is truly a child blessed, one truly beloved of God and the best of loving friends.

This is a female flic in a truer sense than any of the female buddy movies mentioned above. This is a film about self-realization as a man or as a woman but more about the relationship between the two characters rather than the superficialities of that relationship used to explore the relationship with oneself. This is the opposite of a masturbatory film in the guise of social intercourse. It is not about what it means to be a man. It is not about what it means to be a woman. It is not about the utopian (and unbelievable) perfect unity of marriage. It is about what it means to have a relationship. Judi Dench playing Philomena is the teacher in the quest for her long lost son who finds out whether or not her son always remained faithful, but that her adopted son who travels with her on the quest discovers what faith really is even if he does not embrace it.

That does not mean that Judi never suffers any crises of faith. There are several in the movie. It could not be a chicflic without them.  But the film is about friendship, not love ,and certainly not sex, which is considered as simply a biological function in contrast to the passion of sex in a love relationship in a movie like Blue Is The Warmest Colour which I saw yesterday. Contrary to standard chicflics or buddy movies, the primary relationship is not between two people both repelled and attracted to one another, but between a mother and son where the relationship of love is NOT about attraction and repulsion as if the two are magnets at opposite poles, but about a much deeper form of bonding than a Church offers built on the myth of a Son of God using the vehicle of a virgin and becoming the embodiment of love.

Will Philomena set a new trend? I think, rather, that it is part of a trend, not the retro trend of Paul Draper in Mad Men, but the trend to explore friendship rather than love in buddy movies as in I Love You, Man in which Peter is played by Paul Rudd and Sydney is played by Jason Segal. The focus is on friendship that develops into love, but not romantic love.