Film & TV

The Intouchables and the healing power of friendship

The Intouchables is a perfect example of the Chiron archetype on film. It’s based on a true story about the friendship that develops between two men who under normal circumstances, never would have met. The film is heart-felt, inspiring and funny, and touches on many themes, including disability, immigration, family and loss, the healing power of the arts and the importance of friendship.

**Expect Spoilers!**

The film begins with a young black man driving a flashy sports car through the streets of Paris late at night. His passenger is an older man who appears subdued but he brightens as the car speeds through the traffic. When the police catch the car, the driver convinces them he’s racing to the hospital because his passenger is having a seizure. The man plays along and the police agree to escort them the rest of the way…

…cue a change in the music to September by Earth, Wind and Fire, and you have one of the best feel-good openings on film. Two unlikely friends out for drive, having fun and taking the piss. How did this happen?

The rest of the film tells the story of how these men met:

Philippe is a quadriplegic millionaire and is interviewing people for the job of caregiver, alongside his glamorous assistant, Magalie. All the candidates are predictable, boring, and insincere, but then a young man barges in and demands to be seen next. Driss has no intention of getting the job – he just wants a form signed so he can receive his welfare benefits. Philippe tells him to come back for it tomorrow.

Overnight, Driss has problems with his family and is thrown out of the cramped flat he shares with loads of other kids. He spends the night on the streets of Paris and returns to Philippe’s mansion the next day to get his form. But Philippe offers him the job instead, on a trial basis for a month. Driss moves in and begins his training and gets to know the other staff and Philippe’s adopted daughter.

Driss baulks at some of the things he has to do but settles in and leaves his mark on everyone he encounters. He and Philippe become friends and enjoy winding each other up and sharing their cultural passions. Driss learns about art and classical music, while Philippe discovers the joys of Earth Wind and Fire, and uses marijuana to help with his phantom pains. They also share their losses and Driss encourages Philippe to call Eleonore, the woman he’s been writing to for six months, so he doesn’t have to be alone.

But the fun and games can’t last. The troubles in Driss’ family catch up with him so Philippe has to let him go. Driss uses his newly acquired knowledge of art to get himself another job and Philippe goes back to putting up with idiots as caregivers. After a bad night, one of the staff calls Driss who comes to see his friend and takes him for a drive. Finally, Driss sets up a lunch date for Philippe and Eleonore and leaves them alone together…

In terms of storytelling, Driss is the protagonist because the film stays with him most of the time. But the two main characters are presented as equals despite their different backgrounds. This reflects the way the characters see each other and is central to the deeper meaning of the story.

Driss lives in the projects on the outskirts of Paris in a flat filled with people. He has no privacy or space for himself. In one scene, he tries to have a shower in a tiny square bath in the corner of the bathroom, but the kids are playing with the taps and he has to chase them out. In contrast, Philippe lives in a huge mansion with his staff and adopted daughter who he barely speaks to.

When Philippe offers Driss the job and he sees his own quarters, complete with en suite bathroom – all to himself – it’s like a religious experience. He gazes at the glistening bath, Ave Maria playing in the background, and can’t believe what he’s seeing. In fact, this may be the only reason he takes the job – that and the prospect of getting to know Magalie.

Later, one of Philippe’s friends warns him about Driss. The staff are worried and say he’s reckless and violent. He tells Philippe that Driss has just been in prison for six months for robbery, so he should be careful and that, “These street guys have no pity.” But Philippe replies:

“That’s what I want. No pity. He often hands me the phone because he forgets.”

Driss isn’t compassionate but he treats Philippe the same way he treats everyone else, as if the wheelchair is irrelevant. And that’s what Philippe wants. He doesn’t care about Driss’ background because Driss makes him feel human – not just an invalid in a chair.

Driss and Philippe are an odd couple but they get on because they’re happy to let each other be who they are. This might be because they both experience prejudice – in their own ways – as reflected in the title. ‘Intouchable’ is French for untouchable, which is what the film is known as in the UK. Both characters are part of a class in society that nobody wants to deal with or even notice: the disabled and the immigrant (black and poor too). Driss and Philippe are both outcasts, untouchables, the lowest of the low.

The title also refers to the fact that Philippe can’t touch anyone because of his paralysis. He’s trapped in his own head and bored with life. He gets through a lot of caregivers because he’s not easy to work with. But he’s grumpy because he wants to be treated as a human being, not a thing to be moved around like a doll or a person so fragile that everything becomes a threat. He wants dignity and respect, like anyone else.

Philippe is surrounded by people looking after his needs but he’s lonely. He needs companionship and Driss gives him that, despite being insensitive and crass at times. This is a special kind of compassion – one that looks like its opposite – because it’s exactly what Philippe needs.

In one scene, Driss refuses to load Philippe into the back of a van, “like a horse.” He recognises how undignified it is and suggests they use the Maserati instead. Philippe says it’s not pragmatic, but Driss doesn’t care – he wants to drive the sports car because it’s cool. He effortlessly lifts Philippe into the passenger seat and off they go – reconnecting Philippe with his past life of risk-taking and adventure.

At the start of the film, Driss is so used to being rejected and judged that he doesn’t expect to get the job. He doesn’t try to impress Philippe and even criticises his taste in music and sense of humour. He’s given up trying to improve his life and is just being himself. He blusters his way through every situation and takes things lightly, despite the troubles he’s had.

Driss is mischievous and irreverent. He teases Philippe and takes the piss, but it’s not spiteful or mean – there’s joy and honesty in his attitude. He knows how to enjoy himself and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks of him.

In one of my favourite scenes, he goes to the opera with Philippe and is surrounded by people taking the whole thing very seriously. When a man dressed as a tree appears on stage and starts to sing, Driss bursts out laughing and can’t contain his glee, “A singing tree!” But he’s not so pleased when he discovers the opera lasts four hours.

Driss is like a catalyst. He comes into Philippe’s life and turns it upside-down and helps him to have more fun. He acts like an ego-buster, stopping Philippe from taking himself too seriously and brooding over what he’s lost. But it’s not all one-way traffic – Driss is changed too. By learning to care for others, he grows up and accepts responsibility for his situation. He’s able to return to his family and straighten out the problems caused by his earlier bad behaviour.

He also calms down a bit and learns some social skills which help him deal with others in a more mature way. Early in the film when somebody is parked across the entrance to Philippe’s house, Driss drags the man from his car. He destroys his phone and forces him to read the notice that says ‘Reserved Parking.’ Later, when somebody else is parked there, talking on the phone, Driss waits patiently for a break in the conversation and then asks the man to move and politely explains the rules.

The turning point for Driss is when Philippe has a panic attack during the night and can’t breathe. Driss sits with him and holds a damp cloth against his face, gently touching his skin to reassure him. There are no crude jokes or inappropriate comments – he’s present for Philippe and shows real care and compassion.

When he’s calm again, Driss takes Philippe for a walk through the dark streets and they share stories about their lives. Philippe explains that his medication has limits so he suffers from phantom pains in the body he can’t feel, saying:

“I feel like a frozen steak tossed onto a red-hot griddle. I feel nothing but suffer anyway.”

He also shares the story of how his wife got a terminal illness after many years of failing to have children. Philippe couldn’t cope with her suffering so he escaped by going paragliding in bad weather. He knew it was dangerous but didn’t care. Perhaps he wanted to suffer like her and was tempting fate. There was an accident and he broke the 3rd and 4th vertebrae in his spine.

“Now I only fly in my mind. When the pain eases, I have my thoughts. My real handicap isn’t being in a chair. It’s living without her.”

Philippe is suffering with an incurable wound and is lame, like Chiron. Driss isn’t wounded physically, but he has suffered as a result of the actions of his parents. Like Chiron who was rejected by his parents, Driss was sent away to live with his aunt and uncle in Paris. He was exiled from his home in Senegal and cut off from his roots – not orphaned, but isolated.

Both Philippe and Driss are trapped in situations they have little control over. They’re doing their best to deal with the consequences of fate and the unfairness of life. But fate also brought them together so they could help each other to cope and make positive changes to their lives. They’re both wounded healers in their own ways.

In a sign of true friendship, both their lives are improved by the presence of the other person. They complement each other and through acceptance and compassion bring joy and love back into each others’ lives.

To finish, here’s a great scene from Philippe’s birthday party. After listening to a sombre performance by the hired orchestra, Philippe asks them to play some more upbeat tunes in an attempt to find something Driss will enjoy. Driss is unmoved and takes the piss, and then plays one of his favourite tunes so everyone can have a proper dance…

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Images: film stills

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One thought on “The Intouchables and the healing power of friendship

  1. I don’t know, anybody that drags a wheel chair through the snow has my vote.

    “My real handicap isn’t being in a chair. It’s living without her.”

    Hmm, feels familiar.

    Liked by 2 people

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