A cheeky dream-drama about the friendship between a rich, white quadriplegic and a penurious black job-seeker, the premise of The Intouchables alone nearly renders analysis redundant. The characters, from their predictable backstories to their day-to-day quirks and motivations, are walking tangles of class signification. The monied cripple, Phillippe (François Cluzet), whose condition is the result of Icarus-style paragliding, veers toward allegory; his stately demeanor, ear for classical music, and Versailles-like château suggest a crusty “stuck”-ness that his disability only serves to underscore. (And once again, representation of the handicapped in film goes only as far as the metaphors their ailments can equip.) The African, Driss (Omar Sy), is by contrast crude and lovably lecherous—a sensualist—as well as a drug user and possibly former dealer who lives with several younger cousins on the road to gangland. He’s hired on as a live-in assistant by Phillippe presumably because he has a certain energy.
The humor is exhausted from this far-fetched partnership rather quickly. Driss’s on-the-job training yields the anticipated body jokes (“I don’t empty a stranger’s butt”) and he invades the invalid’s château with hoodies, sex gags, common sense, and Kool & the Gang. From there on, the plot’s seriousness escalates with parallel conflicts proportionate to the central characters’ economic bracket—the fear of finding one’s younger brother shot dead in a drug war being not so different, after all, from dealing with a spoiled daughter or trying to rekindle a romance with a pen pal. The directors, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, even shoot their Parisian ghetto and their chateau with the same crepuscular opulence; the yellows are gold, the whites are creamy, the shadows are blue and wet like chrome after a rainstorm. Our circumstances may be different, but we’re all born into the same, digitally retouched world.
It all leads to conservative mush, a denouement that treats the characters’ succumbing to their class expectations as a quiet triumph. Driss continues to help his family, and acquires a hesitant taste for finery. Phillippe is invigorated by Driss, despite his condition’s worsening, and begins to take greater risks for the sake of fulfilling his midlife desires. The latter’s extensive financial safety net is never threatened, nor is the former’s dearth of resources significantly ameliorated; the assistance the two provide to one another is mostly abstract and completely incongruous with the social anxieties they symbolize. (Remarkably, late in the film Phillippe encourages Driss to seek work elsewhere so he can live closer to home; his forcing Driss back into the projects and into unemployment is framed as an act of friendship.) With this mix of inspirational pablum and class lyricism, the filmmakers undeniably intend to suggest that anyone, anywhere can break free from atrophy and seize the day. But if you’re economically disadvantaged, hopefully your idea of carpe diem doesn’t go beyond helping the wealthy improve their love life and parenting skills. Beyond that, you’re on your own for encouragement.