This weekend, I saw “The Intouchables”, a movie that has, perhaps inexplicably, become France’s #2 grossing film of all time, and that finally landed in North American theatres this week. I loved it, and I also think it’s a good film. But I can also see why American critics have been alternately scoffing, miffed, grudging, and downright appalled.
The story, you see, is about a tall black Senegalese from the Parisian banlieues who finds work with a rich, white quadriplegic. Driss didn’t set out to be a live-in physiotherapist/carer for Philippe – he just wanted a signature confirming he was looking for employment so he can collect his welfare benefits. But Philippe takes a shine to Driss’ no-holds-barred attitude, and hires him.
Some reviews on this side of the ocean have been positive about the feel-good spirit. But I can certainly see why many American critics have taken this movie into virulent dislike, calling it a “condescending” “embarrassment” (New Yorker), or an offence that “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes to has permanently exited American screens” (Variety).
That’s not how I see it, but race relations in each country are different. To me, “The Intouchables” is a fable about a beautiful friendship, plain and simple. The thing is, “The Intouchables” is not about race relations and pervasive inequity. It’s about two men who learn and benefit from each other within the boundaries of their class. Philippe does not rescue Driss’ family from the banlieues and give him a good job forever; Driss does not become a world-famous artist by the grit of his fervour and talent. At the end, all they have left is friendship, and it is a good one.
At the very least, I’d encourage you to see it yourself and form your own opinions, if you haven’t already. Me, I’m getting it the minute it comes out on DVD.