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Provocative 'The Intouchables' cashes in with several coats of sugar

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Ébène et Ivoire — Phillipe (François Cluzet) being shown the good life by Driss (Omar Sy) in The Intouchables.

Even before its release in the United States, The Intouchables became the highest grossing non-Anglophone film in history. Such commercial success can be counted on to irritate important critics; Pauline Kael lost her job at McCall's after calling The Sound of Music "a sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat."

The earliest American reviews have not been kind to The Intouchables, disparaging it as a Gallic Driving Miss Daisy and boasting that it shows how far behind the United States France is when it comes to racial sensitivity. Based on a true story recounted in the 2001 memoir A Second Wind, The Intouchables is a biracial buddy film reminiscent of the pairings of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, and Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Its particular form of sugarcoating ought to appeal to fructose-addicted American consumers. However, knowing that their compatriots eschew subtitles, the Weinstein Company has bought the rights to remake it in America. (They probably will not call their English-speaking version The Untouchables.)

Philippe Pozzo di Borgo is insensitive to touch, incapable of feeling anything from neck to toes as the result of a paragliding accident. A wealthy aristocrat, he employs an army of attendants in his posh Parisian residence but finds the post of caretaker — someone to feed, clean, and carry him — difficult to fill. Driss, a street-smart scamp who has served time for robbery, interviews for the job, counting on a rejection to make him eligible for public assistance. But Philippe is impressed by Driss's high spirits and decides to take a chance on him. The blue-blooded patrician and the black-skinned prole make an odd couple. Driss was born in Senegal and raised in a cramped flat in an immigrant quarter, whereas Philippe was born into baronial splendor. But, though Philippe is partial to Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart, while Driss gets off on Earth, Wind & Fire, each learns from the other. A love story between a lord and his lackey, The Intouchables is an enchanting fantasy of social comity.

Driss, who initially pockets one of Philippe's precious Fabergé eggs, hails from one of the desolate faubourgs ringing Paris that periodically erupt in riots against a society in which newcomers from Africa and Asia are as marginalized as the untouchables of India. But, as played by the ebullient, attractive Omar Sy, Driss is less a threat to privilege than to despair. He brings humor and candor into Philippe's stuffy world, while François Cluzet's Philippe is a paragon of patience and compassion, the antithesis of the sleazy gentility of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The film's predictable trajectory is largely played for laughs, as when Driss accompanies Philippe to the opera and, despite the solemnity of the high cultural occasion, erupts into disruptive guffaws during a bombastic German aria. Out of severe disability, directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have conspired to make comedy, threatened only when Driss is shaving Philippe's neck, and Philippe remarks: "One cut could end it here."

That cut, of course, never comes. The Intouchables uses mirth to dispel the darkness, to imagine a world in which rich and poor, black and white can touch and thrive. •

★★★ (out of 5 stars)

The Intouchables

Writ. & dir. Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, based on a memoir by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo; feat. François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny (R) 

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