The Intouchables is a deeply challenging and yet uplifting and humorous French film which charts the friendship of a wealthy paraplegic man, Phillippe and his carer Driss, a young man from a deprived area of the Parisian suburbs.
In assessing the film, it is necessary to acknowledge the genre, of a feel-good fantasy, similar in plot line to Pretty Woman, or Trading Places. It would thus be a statement of the obvious to criticise the weaknesses, for example, the possibility of a disabled person being a multi-millionaire, or the chances of a Senegalese immigrant being employed by such a wealthy benefactor. Although the film is based on real-life events, the selection of such a story enables the directors to avoid some of the more sombre aspects of disability, such as socially-imposed unemployment and subsequent poverty, and inadequate care. However rather than being a weakness, the presence of wealth can be seen in some ways to enable a more nuanced exploration of friendships and relationships with carers, focussed on the realities of being, and being recognised as, another human being. It also enables us to ask ‘To what extent is disability confounded by wealth?’
Carol Thomas, in her seminal text ‘Female Forms’ in 1999, proposed the Social Relational Model of Disability, which identified three dimensions of disability: the impairment itself, evident through Phillippe’s lack of movement and 'phantom pain’ which causes practical restrictions of activity; socially imposed restrictions of activity, such as lack of physical access, and the neighbours use of the parking space; and the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability. It is this dimension that is explored in depth in the film. Phillippe’s primary concern is the attitudes of others – the patronising attitudes of his potential care staff, and the ‘concern’ of his family. He employs Driss as he is addressed directly and rudely in interview, ‘without compassion’. Although this lack of compassion leads to some of the more uncomfortable elements of the film, for example Driss experimenting with hot tea on Phillippe’s bare leg, or withholding a chocolate, I believe we need to consider Phillippe’s agency. He is aware Driss is experimenting, and sees this as part of the human that Driss is.
Hunt (1991) identified 10 stereotypes of disabled people in film and media, such as ‘piteable’, ‘sinister’, ‘a burden’, ‘non-sexual’ and unable to participate in daily life. As the friendship develops, there is a montage of ‘fun scenes’, with Phillippe challenging these stereotypes, and demonstrating and exploring his humanity through activities not commonly associated with disability, for example, escaping the police, smoking marijuana and hiring prostitutes.
The film presents many challenges, and raises fierce debate amongst critics and the general public if approached through the lens of disability. There is also much to debate around the themes of class and gender. However, I would argue in terms of raising public consciousness about some of the real, psycho-emotional dimensions of disability, for me this is a hit.