Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Philippe is a multimillionaire aristocrat with a dream setup: He lives in a staffed Paris mansion, keeps a fleet of fancy cars in his pebbled courtyard, and jets around in a private plane.
There’s just one problem. Philippe is disabled as a result of a paragliding accident, and needs round-the-clock help. He hires a caregiver named Driss, who just did six months in jail for a jewelry-store stickup, and who hails from the bleak poverty-stricken suburbs of Paris.
That simple plot -- based on a true story -- has made “Intouchables” (“Untouchables”) the surprise French hit movie of the moment. The film, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano who both also wrote the script, has drawn some 17 million spectators so far and continues to fill movie houses. It helped lift 2011 French box-office totals to their highest level in 45 years. In a BVA poll, the movie was voted cultural event of the year, the rich-man-poor-man storyline appealing to all income brackets.
“Intouchables” is well paced and well acted. Francois Cluzet is touching yet not sentimental as blue-blood Philippe while Omar Sy is a hoot as the sidekick of Senegalese descent.
The movie starts with a job interview. Candidates for the caregiver position sit in an ornate salon, staring at a row of Faberge eggs. Then they’re quizzed by a busty redhead named Magalie, and by Philippe, who’s in a wheelchair with neck support. Most of the applicants are dull, and at a loss to list their motivations: Money, humanity, empathy, they shrug.
Suddenly, Driss, the only non-white candidate, barges in, hands smugly stuffed in his jean pockets. He just wants proof of attendance so he can claim welfare benefits, he says. Then he shamelessly makes a pass at Magalie. Philippe, visibly amused, has him come back the next day to collect his signed slip.
Driss heads back to the suburbs (“la banlieue”) and drops in on his mom, a cleaner with multiple kids crowded into a low-rent apartment. She’s none too pleased to see the young felon. Driss spends the rest of the evening outside with his friends, feasting on fast food in a forest of cement blocks.
Back at the mansion the next day, Driss realizes that he has landed the job he never asked for, and is on a monthlong trial. He’s shown to a satin-draped bedroom and a sumptuous en-suite bathroom with a free-standing oval tub.
He’s then led past tapestries and gilded canvases to the even grander master bedroom, where he watches Philippe get combed and fed. That’ll be his job, along with one or two less palatable duties. Philippe bets he won’t last two weeks.
The young man’s initial reactions are entertaining. To Driss, Berlioz is the name of a housing project, and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is the on-hold music at the welfare office. A contemporary artwork with red blotches is just somebody having a nose bleed, and certainly not worth tens of thousands of euros.
During an opera outing, Driss keeps pointing at the hairy guy in a tree costume who happens to sing. When urged to keep quiet, he barks, “Why? It’s all in German anyway!”
Besides being a goofball, Driss shows Philippe a good time: He has him smoke joints, takes him for wild night rides through Paris, and persuades him to meet the woman he’s having an epistolary relationship with.
“Intouchables” comes in a long line of French blockbuster comedies. They often can be corny, sophomoric and hard to translate. What makes “Intouchables” different is that it’s socially relevant. By picturing the widening wealth gap in a lighthearted way, it’s the right story for a recessionary age, not just another laugh-out-loud comedy a la “Trading Places.”
The movie now may strike a chord with the rest of the world. Weinstein Co. has just bought the film for release in the U.S., and has an option on the remake rights, too. Rating: ***.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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