The Intouchables (aka Intouchables, aka Untouchable) is an award-winning French comedy-drama from 2011. It was a hugely popular international hit, so there’s a good chance you saw it on its release. If you missed it, it’s definitely worth your time. The outline of the plot (below) and the examination of the critics’ interpretation of the relationship between the two main characters will not ruin your enjoyment of the film.
I am a tad late with this, but "African Time: what is it like to be African in America" gave me a lot to think about and my thoughts ended up coming together after I watched "The Intouchables". I was so affected by the movie that I decided to write about it.
The Intouchables is an extraordinary French export directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano. Based on a true story, it is a timeless examination of the tension that exists between people from different socio-economic groups and of attitudes towards physical disability in modern society. It is a story of an unlikely relationship between an ex-con immigrant caregiver and a quadriplegic aristocratic millionaire. It is also a film about the unlikely success of an immigrant and his employer and friend, and it is the nature of this success that I want to briefly examine here.
The protagonist Driss is a tall Senegalese man played by Omar Sy. Driss is rough around the edges, yet smooth and principled, and he speaks from the heart. His jokes are funny and, because he is not encumbered by propriety, sometimes close to the bone. His manner is ironic and his tone carefree. On the other hand, his employer, Philippe, played by François Cluzet, is cultured, educated and very refined. His manner is logical, calm and pensive.
The progression of their relationship is enchanting, almost magical. The realization of Philippe’s disability is a powerful tool used to understand the complex relationship between employee and employer in a society laced with complex cultural, social and political history. In theory Philippe has power over Driss, after all, he pays him and has bound him by contract. However, it is Driss who has power over Philippe in reality. After all, he bathes him, empties his bowels and soothes him during his restless fits in the middle of the night. The eventual display of their mutual vulnerability is testament to how much trust plays a role in cultivating friendship and navigating uncommon situations.
All that to say I was impressed by the film’s ability to avoid direct allusions to race. In fact, through my reactions to various scenes in the movie I discovered something about a certain mentality I have harbored, more familiar to African immigrants in Western societies. It is a mentality informed by meekness as a means of survival, which fuels the humongous fire that is the hypocrisy of success amongst African immigrants.
What I mean by this is best explained by Driss’ manner after Phillipe gives him a job. He could easily have become the typical overbearing caregiver, tripping over himself at the chance to wipe Phillipe’s ass or massage his feet. Instead, what we see is a man who learns how to take on his responsibilities at his own pace, developing a relationship built on trust first. For this reason alone I am unconvinced by the critics who interpreted the story as that of the “liberation of a frozen white man.” If any liberation occurs, it is as a result of free will, and not the effect of having the company of a black man “who is crude, sexy and great at dancing.”
I would argue that what liberates Cluzet’s character is Driss’ absence of pity towards him, a simple act that frees Phillipe to continue his life in a manner most fulfilling. An act that certain mainstream critics have decided shall be called Driss’ ignorance. This idea that Driss is ignorant because he laughs at an Opera singer or mocks the high value of art is misleading and serves to perpetuate a notion of success based on losing one’s personality and assuming the customs of a socio-economic class one will never be fully accepted in.
I refuse to give these critics the chance to reinforce that particular idea of what it means to be successful in Western society when you come from a marginalized community. It is an idea based on mindless assimilation and humble servitude. Driss is not ignorant because his crude sense of humor persists despite the new environment he finds himself in. He is not ignorant because he doesn’t automatically shift gears from “stereotypically ignorant” to monolithically loyal once he gets an insanely rich, white employer. Driss is consistent and authentic throughout the film, despite the complaints and concerns of the more well to do characters in the story. In fact, the audience is constantly rewarded with his indefatigable realness. As critic, essayist and novelist Andre Gide once said, “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” That quality alone made him memorable and made me realize how much it is lacking in our everyday lives. Because of this I believe that Toledone and Nakache manage to uncover a great conversation about the hypocrisy of what success means for African immigrants in Western societies. A topic that is timely given the increasingly tense social and economic times that we live in.