Film Critic Jean Oppenheimer on the new French film, The Intouchables


Film Critic Jean Oppenheimer writes about films of interest to our audience.

The Artist captured my heart so completely last year that when I learned Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin had been passed over for the French Cesar, I responded with outrage. Who could possibly have given a better performance? Now I know. And while I think “better” and “best” are meaningless constructs in this instance, it’s hard to quarrel with the French Academy’s choice. Omar Sy, who took home the statuette for The Intouchables [sic] gives such a charismatic, lived-in performance that one wonders whether he is simply playing himself.  (Actors must hate it when audiences think that.)

Written and directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache and based on a true story, the film concerns the unlikely friendship that develops between Philippe, a wealthy, educated quadriplegic  (Francois Cluzet, wonderful) and Driss (Sy), a young man, just out of prison, who is hired as Philippe’s caregiver. (In real life the caretaker was Algerian, but the filmmakers had worked with Sy previously and wrote the role especially for him. That seems to be the only major liberty the filmmakers have taken.)

Hilarious and heartwarming in equal measure, the film is chock full of clever, irreverent dialogue and amusing sight gags –- not broad, physical antics but humorous, character-driven situations. It is laugh out-loud funny. Visual style isn’t usually a priority in comedy, but The Intouchables is an exception. The night scenes, in particular, have unusual depth and visual beauty. What makes the film work so well, however, is the chemistry between the two leads and the totally convincing respect and affection that develops between the characters.

A number of American critics have disparaged the film, with most of them focusing on the issue of race. David Denby of The New Yorker dismisses Sy’s performance as “grating,” the plot as “condescending” and the overall film as “an embarrassment.” Jay Weissberg of Variety accuses it of “Uncle Tom racism.” I don’t agree. The primary differences between Philippe and Driss are neither racial nor ethnic; they are distinctions of class. Driss could just as easily have been a white man.  See the film and decide for yourself.

Jean also recommends Moonrise Kingdom, director Wes Anderson’s best film since Rushmore (oh so too many years ago). Funny, warm (for Anderson), wistful and ruefully sweet, with the director’s trademark deadpan dialogue and whimsical production design. Also not to be missed (if you have HBO) is Hemingway & Gellhorn, premiering Sunday evening. Nicole Kidman is superb as American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn who is unfairly remembered more for her marriage to Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owens) than for her own singular achievements as a writer and journalist.