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The Intouchables: Touching Drama of Oddball Friendship
There's no denying the fact that French cinema – whether you're a fan or not – has played a big part in shaping filmmaking around the world, and as one of the most successful film industries in Europe, one is always excited to see what the 'birth place of cinema' has to offer.
For that reason, it's no surprise that The Intouchables is nothing short of inspirational.
Based on a true story, The Intouchables focuses on Philippe (Cluzet); a cultured, wealthy, reserved man who has been left quadriplegic after an unfortunate paragliding incident, and is now looking to hire a new carer to tend to his everyday needs.
After sifting through a long-list of applicants and suffering through several dreary interviews, Philippe soon comes across Driss (Sy); a boisterous immigrant from Senegal hailing from the Parisian housing projects. Phillipe quickly learns that Driss is not really interested in the position at all; he is there to get his paperwork signed so he can continue to mooch of the governmental welfare benefits for the unemployed.
Intrigued by the young man's carefree attitude and brutal honesty, Philippe hires Driss as his aide – mainly due to Driss' lack of pity for his employer's physical challenges – and soon after, the unlikely partnership develops into something so much more than either of them could have anticipated.
It's very hard to find something not to like in this extremely light-hearted, yet deeply reflective, story of the most oddball of match-ups. We've seen this story told tens of times before, in various forms, but none have held such sincerity, honesty and genuine warmth.
The question of racial discrimination, as many have already suggested, at no point falls into clichéd territories and it doesn't explicitly hinge on a rich, old, white guy versus poor, black guy; The Untouchables is real, funny, down-to-earth, and puts humanity before anything else. Its main focus is on the dynamics between its two leads; one is rich and the other poor; one prefers Schubert and Bach and the other would rather hit the dance floor and boogie to the 70's funk tunes of 'Earth, Wind & Fire'. Their differences are vast, however, it's those disparities that bring them closer together.
No matter how good the story, cinematography and the soundtrack – an eclectic combo of Nina Simone's classic 'Feeling Good', soul-funk tunes from the Kool and the Gang and a sombre piano score from the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi – it's the electric performances from both Cluzet and Sy that stand out the most.
Cluzet – who is a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman – gives a spectacular performance; his eyes do most of the talking. Sy, an actor who has been winning awards left, right and centre for this breakthrough performance, shows an aptitude for comedy and his highly expressive mannerisms bring vibrancy to every scene he blesses.
Hurry up and watch The Intouchables, before it's sullied by a big Hollywood adaptation.
He promptly charms the somewhat cynical principal Ms. Vaillancourt (Proulx), who at first is a little hesitant to his slightly mystical presence, and soon takes over the 'broken' classroom. The film’s heart also lies with the two students who were unfortunate enough to discover the body. Alice (Nélisse) is a bright-eyed, straight A student, who deals with her own troubles of an absent parent on daily basis. The tender-looking Simon (Néron) suffers a level of guilt for his teacher's demise and is a problematic student as a result.
The task at hand is one of many challenges for M. Lazhar. Nevertheless, with his own personal suffering set aside, its details slowly unravel throughout the film; he takes the kids under his caring wing and slowly starts guiding them to the truth.
Fellag's interpretation of M. Lazhar is a delightful surprise. Though slightly old-fashioned in his teaching methods, trying to get to grips on a modernised education system, Lazhar is portrayed as loyal and caring. From beginning to end, we are embraced with his warmth and affection. The same can be said for the outstanding performances by both child actors, Alice and Simon. The level of maturity and the profound strength they bring to their roles is nothing short of mesmerising.
Based on writer Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir, the ‘mostly true’ story of one Margaret Shepherd - an eccentric homeless woman who back in the mid-70’s decided to set up camp in Bennett’s North London driveway and stay there for fifteen years - is beautifully told in Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van; a humorous and touching tale of an unusual friendship brought to life by an engaging script and one deliciously weird and quirky performance by the forever-great Dame Maggie Smith.
Adapted to the screen by Bennett himself – his story was initially turned into a book back in 1989 before taking up stage in London’s West End in 1999 - The Lady in the Van begins by introducing Alan Bennett (Jennings); a witty, dry and a seemingly withdrawn playwright who has just moved in to his new home in Camden, London. Thanks to camera trickery, there are two versions of the writer to be witnessed here; one is Bennett the man – a shy and a reserved fellow who deals with the outside world – and Bennett the writer; someone who sits, writes and complains about the lack of intrigue and excitement in their somewhat boring and complicated co-existence.
Things take an interesting turn with the appearance of Miss. Shepherd (Smith); a strange, smelly and a particularly single-minded drifter who lives out of the back of a van. After not being able to park her van out on the street anymore, Miss. Shepherd – whose unconventional characteristics have already ignited an interest in the writer – turns to Bennett for help. Taking pity on the poor old lady, he soon agrees for her to temporarily use his driveway which, as it turns out, she stayed on for fifteen years.
It’s easy to recognise The Lady in the Van’s theatrical roots with the movie bearing a somewhat of an artificial and at times, a distractingly stagey feel. However, that should not pose as a problem with the magnificent Maggie Smith at play, whose performance is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive the film’s tiny drawbacks. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, Smith is absolutely superb as the wandering oldster whose mysterious past involving a hit-and-run – something that serves as the major subplot in the story – has led her to where she is today. Her interaction with Bennett – a pleasantly reliable Jennings - is where the story’s heart lies and it’s his never-ending curiosity about his particularly strange squatter that ends up slowly unravelling the mystery behind her suffering existence.
Staying clear of unnecessary melodrama and over-sentimentalising its subject, The Lady in the Van is all about Smith’s turn and, while its peculiar set up may not appeal to everyone’s taste, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being taken in by this 80 year old actress’ immense talent and her incredible ability of commanding the screen.