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So I have no idea why the excellent French movie, titled Intouchables in French, is being marketed as “Intouchables” in English, which either means nothing or might be a play on the more obvious word.  As it happens, the meaning in English is Untouchables, as in “Usain Bolt is simply untouchable,” or “the “untouchables” in India are finally breaking barriers.” Untouchables also fits the lives of the two characters of the movie: a unemployed, border-line criminal, black African and a quadriplegic.  Most middle-class shall we say, movie goers, would rather not be confronted with either.

François Cluzet as Philippe and Omar Sy as Driss do a stupendous job of bringing to film-life, and making larger than life, the true story (though I don’t find a book from which it is taken) of a similar odd-couple.  Though it’s predictable in one sense — two people from radically different cultures overcoming their differences and becoming friends — it’s who they are and how they make the journey that makes all the difference.  It is not a saccharine “uplift” movie but in watching its improbable story you can’t help but come out  feeling lifted up.

Driss is a handsome, garrulous lay-about in one of the big marginizing housing projects around Paris [which as it turns out, reflects Sy’s actual upbringing.]  Though he’d like the money, work isn’t his style.  In fact, its so much not his style he is kicked out of the house by who we take to be his mother.  It’s so much not his style that he tries to make a bad impression at the mandatory job-interviews so he can not land the job but keep his national support. Unfortunately for him, his cocky attitude, not to mention his strong arms and back, make the ultra-wealth, wheel-chair bound Philippe think he’s worth a try.

The trick in the film is that they bond, not because of gentleness and understanding, or liberal tolerance but because of the unselfconscious, almost brazen, directness of the caretaker.  If he has a question, he asks it: ‘if you’re paralyzed from the neck down, what do you do about women?’  If there is a problem, he solves it in his own ‘pragmatic’ way: a respiratory attack in the middle of the night leads not to emergency phone calls and ambulances, but to a wheel chair ride along the Seine at three in the morning. Philippe’s sense of humor, though much dryer than Driss’, responds perfectly.  In fact, some of the nicest moments are watching his face take on the sly delight of teasing Driss, or realizing that he has been had.

There are nice side stories as well.  Driss is one of those fairy-tale fellows who makes everyone who brushes up against him, like him — even those he insults or pushes around, like the mop-head boyfriend of Philippe’s bratty daughter, who is also straightened out. His constant coming on to the voluptuous redheaded secretary has it’s own up and downs, so to speak, the humor of which depends somewhat on our distance from his bottomless self-esteem.  His ride in a para-glider, the same device that crippled Philippe is, again predictably, genuine high fun.

The two actors, both with long lists of credits [Cluzot, 93, Sy, 37], seem a match made in movie heaven.  What a pair of engaging faces!

There have been some questions as to why the Driss character is a black African (Senegal) in the movie, while in the actual story, the caretaker was a north African, from the Maghreb. It doesn’t matter for the film itself.  Omar Sy is a very engaging actor, and fits the role to a T.  If sub-texts and politics is your game then the question might be worth perusing.  Let us know of any interesting findings.

And please, if you know why it’s not called, in English, Untouchables, or Outcasts, let me know. [The Italian, Israeli and German titles are even stranger.]

The movie has been attracting sell-out crowds in France; it is the second highest grossing movie on French charts and has been nominated for, and won, a half a dozen awards. It’s easy to see why.  When the news of the day is so uniformly unhappy it’s no wonder that people are flocking to see a movie that shows the possibility of goodness, however improbably set up.  Being a multi-millionaire with a gold and ivory bathroom as big as a poor man’s house, is certainly a big help, but heck, we all know, some filthy rich people are the nicest folks imaginable.

You don’t believe me?  Here, have a few more reads.

p.s. Vertigo danger, on a scale of 1-5 is a 1.  When the cars start racing, close your eyes.