Real life nudges The Intouchables co-director Olivier Nakache
“Jean Dujardin is a friend of mine,” Olivier Nakache admitted almost apologetically in French over the telephone to the Georgia Straight, “and he won the best-actor prize [for The Artist] everywhere in the world…except in his native country.”
Nakache had something to do with this interesting anomaly. In conjunction with Eric Toledano (they had already made three features together), the man wrote and directed The Intouchables, the second most popular French film ever and the most financially successful non-anglophone movie of all time. Omar Sy, one of the two stars of their movie, was the actor who edged Dujardin at the Césars.
The plot of this crowd pleaser pivots on actual events. The on-screen friendship that develops between Philippe (François Cluzet), a wealthy quadriplegic, and Driss (Sy), his foreign-born caregiver, was loosely modelled after the affectionate ties that still bind Philippe Pozzo di Borgo to Abdel Sellou (the two appear briefly during the final credits).
The main difference here concerns ethnicity. Abdel is of Arab origin, while Driss hails from Senegal. This has produced a certain degree of misunderstanding in regard to the racial politics of the production, including at least one U.S. charge of racism.
During the past decade, French citizens of North African descent have assumed ever greater prominence on both sides of the camera, but—except in the films of Claire Denis—the same cannot be said of French actors whose ancestral roots stretch south of the Sahara. Nakache sees this as a generational thing.
“Basically, it’s a question of actors,” he explained. “Cinema is a reflection of society. First there was a wave of immigration from the Maghreb [Northwest Africa], then another wave from countries like Senegal and Mali, which is now developing a new generation of actors. This is a very contemporary French phenomenon. The same process has taken place in other parts of the world, including the United States.”
The Intouchables is very much a pas de deux, although in one sense the term is inappropriate because one of the two protagonists cannot move a muscle. Everything revolves around Philippe and Driss, the first man possessing every advantage except youth and mobility, the second enjoying what Philippe lacks but being “handicapped” on many other levels (although he’d probably deny this). In other words, each man has what the other lacks.
To prepare for the part of Philippe, Nakache said, Cluzet “spent a couple of days in Morocco with his real-life model. He also met with doctors in hospitals to learn the ins and outs of quadriplegia. He had to learn how to operate the chair.”
As for the film’s celebrated paragliding sequence, Nakache conceded that “that was a real challenge. We had to shoot it for real, without resorting to trickery, even if we did insert digital images into some of the shots.”
The same realism applied to the wheelchair-in-the-snow dance. “You can’t fake something like that,” Nakache commented. “The snow fell, so we improvised the entire scene.”
What North Americans will probably find most intriguing are the reasons behind Driss’s seemingly ahistorical fascination with the 1970s pop group Earth, Wind & Fire. “In the suburbs around Paris,” the director explained, “funk is seen as the beginning of hip-hop and rap, so it’s very popular there, just as Philippe’s love of classical music emphasizes his ties to the French bourgeoisie.”
Watch the trailer for The Intouchables.