Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 27, 2012
Hospice training sometimes includes an exercise in which participants are asked to list the 10 activitites that give them the most pleasure, such as hobbies, fine food, exercise, travel and reading. They they are instructed to consider what it would be like to give them up, one after another.
This is aging, they are told. This is dying.
A grim prospect, and perhaps one reason why the long-running French movie “The Intouchables” has been doing so well: it is trumpeted as a “feel good comedy” based on a true story that also allows us to feel good about the many ways things can go bad.
Philippe is a wealthy Parisian businessman. He has a beautiful wife, lives in a luxury apartment with expensive artwork and furnishings, even owns his own jet. He is callous and unfeeling. “I was raised to think we pissed on the world,” he says.
Then things go bad in a hurry. His wife dies of cancer and he suffers a paragliding accident that leaves him a quadriplegic.
A number of helpers are interviewed, some with advanced degrees and experience working with the disabled. But the one Philippe unaccountably picks is Driss, an ex-con from Senegal who lives in a Paris slum building before his aunt kicks him out. One of Philippe’s upper crust friends warns against hiring him:
“These street guys have no pity.”
“That’s what I want,” Philippe replies. “No pity.”
Played by the wonderful French actor Omar Sy, who won the French best actor award for this role, Driss initially has no interest in Philippe; it’s just another job, albeit one with some nice perks: a sumptuous room with a plush bed to flop onto, a snazzy Italian sports car to drive around in and a bevy of attractive female secretaries, receptionists and assistants to chase after.
Nor does he comprehend the scope of Philippe’s condition. He is incredulous when the hot coffee he inadvertently pours on Philippe’s leg registers no reaction. “That’s crazy,” he says. “You can’t feel a thing?”
But Philippe does begin to feel a connection to his helper, and Driss to realize the dimensions of his client’s physical limitations, and their common bond. They are both, in a sense, “untouchable,” the one an immigrant, the other an invalid.
Philippe appreciates Driss for all the things he is not: lively, charismatic, funny. Tossing snowballs at Philippe, played by the equally wonderful Francois Clouzet (a ringer for Dustin Hoffman), Driss calls out “Don’t be so lazy. You have to throw some back.” They share an unpitying humor. They dance together, get high together, travel together. They learn to care for each other, and in so doing, to care for themselves.
It is a wonderful story, but it would not work nearly as well if we didn’t know it was true. However there is a little hitch to the truth. As we learn over the end credits, the actual Driss was not black but white, from Algeria. Message boards have overflowed with questions about why his race and nationality were changed. Was it anti-Arab prejudice? Some have surmised the directors were simply looking for the best actor.
And the movie, as entertaining and even poignant as it is, raises a troubling question about the nature of our empathy. We can “feel good” about Philippe and Driss, and leave the theater with big smiles and even tears of joy. Their shared humanity in the face of painful suffering is heart-warming. It is easy to see why it has become one of the most popular French movies of all time, and why the Weinstein Company snapped up distribution rights and may produce an American remake.
But the movie plays it safe. It doesn’t push us to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions about life, about why some people suffer rotten luck and random tragedy, about why bad things happen to good people, and ultimately why living entails the loss of pleasure, one by one. These questions are, in a sense, unanswerable, but that is the difference between art, which addresses complexity, and entertainment, which mostly avoids it. If the movie had been open to that more ambitious approach, it might have been profound instead of merely pleasant.