Starring: François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet
Rating: R, for profanity and drug use
On June 27, 1993, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo — fifth son of Duke Pozzi di Borgo, and acting director of France’s Pommery Champagne — was seriously injured while paragliding. The accident broke his spine and left him a quadriplegic, unable to sense or move anything below his neck.
Three years later, his beloved wife Beatrice lost her struggle against a prolonged illness. That was one tragedy too many; Philippe sank into a depression and abandoned the will to endure each new day.
That is, until the arrival of his “guardian devil,” an Algerian-born career criminal named Abdel Yasmin Sellou, who became the wealthy man’s caregiver.
Abdel brought Philippe back to vibrant life in every sense of the word; the latter detailed this unusual relationship in a popular 2001 book, “The Second Wind.” That led to a 2003 TV documentary, “A la vie, à la mort (In Life, Death),” which in turn inspired filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano to make the big-screen drama “The Intouchables,” a smash hit in France and now newly released on our shores.
“Inspirational” simply isn’t a strong enough word for this enchanting film.
The saga’s rougher edges have been smoothed out, particularly with respect to the caregiver’s dodgier back story. (Rather oddly, he has been transformed into a Senegalese immigrant named Driss here.)
The goal clearly was crowd-pleasing entertainment, and Nakache and Toledano side-stepped any details too grim to interfere with that tone. But they haven’t skirted any of the day-to-day challenges involved with attending a quadriplegic; indeed, that’s where much of the story’s cheerful outlook resides.
Following a droll prologue, the story opens as Philippe (François Cluzet, well remembered as the endangered lead in the sensational 2006 thriller, “Tell No One”) and his secretary/assistant, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), consider applicants for the position of his 24/7 caregiver.
These interviews, the overlapping responses staged for comic effect, are deftly edited — Dorian Rigal-Ansous, take a bow — in the manner of countless “tryout scenes” from films as diverse as “All That Jazz” and “The Commitments,” among many others.
Driss (Omar Sy) stands out like the proverbial bull in a china shop: too tall, too brutish, too unrefined, too brusque, too loud, too … street. And, indeed, he’s present only to collect a signature that demonstrates the token job-application effort needed to qualify for his next welfare check.
But Philippe, intrigued by this energetic, wildly intense young man, doesn’t let Driss off that easily. Correctly deducing that Driss might be tempted by room, board and a salary in such posh surroundings, Philippe has his housekeeper (Anne Le Ny, as Yvonne) conduct a tour of the guest quarters. The ploy works, as does Philippe’s barbed suggestion that Driss won’t last two weeks.
That’s no idle threat; the job demands are brutal. Driss certainly has the size and strength for the necessary lifting — out of bed, into a chair, and so forth — but lacks the temperament for the, ah, more delicate details. Macho pride prompts Driss to balk more than once, when confronted by bathing needs, or seemingly effeminate leggings (essential to maintain circulation in Philippe’s limbs) and other duties that require plastic gloves.
Driss’ reactions range from baffled and contemptuous to utterly appalled, and Sy delivers a performance of well-timed comic genius. (No surprise: He just won France’s Best Actor César Award for this role, besting Jean Dujardin, in “The Artist.”) But Driss isn’t merely a bearer of impeccably delivered one-liners; he also has a darker, tortured side, and that’s the deftly shaded beauty of Sy’s superbly nuanced acting talents.
Cluzet, of necessity, nimbly essays the far more difficult yin to Sy’s yang; Philippe’s behavior is minimalist, where Driss is flamboyant enough to fill a soccer stadium. Cluzet projects complex emotions via half-smiles and his gaily dancing eyes, while Philippe’s darker funks are revealed — just as vividly — when the actor’s face simply shuts down, yielding to levels of despair and panic that are palpably painful to witness.
The glaringly obvious question, voiced by one of the many members of Philippe’s huge family, is why such a refined, intelligent and vulnerable gentleman would trust his life — and home — to somebody who looks every inch a thug.
“I don’t want pity from anybody,” Philippe calmly responds, “and he’ll never do that. It’s not in his nature.”
We’ve seen this dynamic before, in countless dramas and comedies: the rough-edged, lower-class “loser” whose earthy, uncomplicated joie de vivre transforms the dull, repressed aristocrat. And, to be sure, Nakache and Toledano’s script frequently navigates those familiar waters, often for light-hearted effect.
But it’s neither that simple nor one-sided; both men give much to the other, beginning — most crucially — with emotional support. As introduced, both Philippe and Driss have come to believe that they’re worthless, each unable to fulfill the functions of “real” men. Stepping outside their respective comfort zones is essential at both ends of this relationship dynamic.
So, yes, we giggle as Driss introduces Philippe to the anxiety-easing comforts of marijuana, but the surface humor of this scene transitions smoothly to the wealthy man’s realization — we see this awareness in Cluzet’s eyes — that he is better able to endure the “phantom pains” of his insensate limbs, after a few tokes.
Philippe’s biggest gift to Driss, in return, is the encouragement of artistic self-expression. Once again, this initially comes about in comic fashion — as Driss scoffs contemptuously at the high price fetched by a minimalist gallery painting — but then leads to an epiphany, as, in the privacy of his quarters, Driss grabs a brush and lets his imagination run wild.
The almost constant focus on Philippe and Driss comes at the expense of some sidebar characters. Magalie and Yvonne fare well enough, but we don’t get sufficient closure regarding Philippe’s rebellious adopted daughter (Alba Gaïa Bellugi, as Elisa), or the strained relationships between Driss and his aunt and younger cousin (Cyril Mendy, as Adama), the latter in serious danger of falling in with a street gang.
The latter situations apparently resolve themselves en route to the obligatory — and completely anticipated — upbeat conclusion. That’s a bit contrived and convenient, but by this point, Nakache, Toledano and their stars have built up so much good will, that you’re unlikely to care.
Needless to say, the final scenes arrive in a triumphant rush of sentiment. Powerful as they are, though, they’re trumped by a quick, closing-credits shot of the actual Philippe and Abdel, who’ve remained close friends to this day: the emotions-stirring cherry atop an already delectable crowd-pleaser.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com