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Genre: Dramedy (foreign)
Premise: (from IMDB) After he becomes a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident, an aristocrat hires a young man from the projects to be his caretaker.
About: The Intouchables became the highest grossing non-English-speaking movie in France’s history, taking in 166 million dollars. But what’s really surprising is how well it did internationally, taking in 281 million dollars, unheard of for a French film. The film won many awards, including the Cesar for co-lead Omar Cy. In short, it’s the best film to come out of France in years. The film is available for free on Netflix streaming right now!
Writer: Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Details: 112 minutes
Oui, you read that right. It’s FRENCH WEEK. I’ve been so inspired by the Musee D’Orsay, the Tour D’eiffel, the Metro, the patisseries, the boulangeries, the pan au chocolates, that I couldn’t NOT do a French week. I mean take a stroll through Montmartre (where Amelie was filmed) and tell me you wouldn’t trade your eldest son to live there for just one day.
Also, while in France, I learned a lot about the French movie industry and why they make such crappy movies. I’m going to save those discoveries for Thursday but let’s just say it’s a LOT easier now to understand why French movies are so terribaux.
Which makes the success of today’s movie all the more confusing. The Intouchables was that rare French film that got it right. Despite seemingly taking the same approach as most other French films (a fairly plot-less drama focusing on the lives of people with the occasional touch of comedy). For that reason, I had to look closer. What made this film break out of a formula that, according to most moviegoers, doesn’t work? Because I’ll be honest, I haven’t been the biggest French film fan. But this one was good. And I believe it comes down to the script (doesn’t it always!). It may behoove the French to take a better look at this script, then, to understand why The Intouchables found so much success.
For those who haven’t seen it, The Intouchables is about a very rich Frenchman, Philippe, who was paralyzed after a hang-gliding accident. Years later, he lives in his beautiful mansion, bound to a wheelchair as a paraplegic, millions of dollars in his bank account, yet not a single penny can give him what he wants most, to move again. To put it bluntly, Philippe’s life is at a standstill.
To make matters worse, everyone who does come in contact with Philippe (his business associates, his lawyer) treat him with pity. And there’s nothing Philippe hates more than pity. Enter Driss, a blunt African immigrant who’s applying for a job as Phillipe’s caretaker. The funny thing is, Driss doesn’t want the job. He just wants his application signed so he can claim that he APPLIED for the job, which will allow him to keep collecting welfare.
Of course, Driss’s casual reaction to Philippe’s disability is exactly what Philippe’s been looking for! So Driss quickly finds himself hired. The two become friends almost immediately, with Driss not afraid to make fun of Philippe’s shortcomings. Driss teaches Philippe to not be so uptight all the time and Philippe teaches Driss about art and culture.
Eventually, Driss learns that Philippe has been exchanging letters with a woman he’s never met. The two have formed a close relationship, but she doesn’t know about Philippe’s disability. Driss encourages Philippe to send her a picture, which Philippe does, though he secretly sends one of himself before the accident. Eventually, the moment comes where the woman wants to meet, and Philippe will have to decide whether to take what he learned from Driss and show up or throw a shot at happiness away.
At first, it’s hard to determine why this movie works. From a traditional standpoint, it’s kind of strange. In these stories where there’s a central coupling, there’s almost always a clear conflict between that couple. For example, when you have a love story, the conflict might come from the two butting heads (The Proposal). Or if it’s a buddy comedy, the two might hate each other (The Other Guys). Here, Philippe and Driss become best friends almost immediately.
There is Driss’s initial reluctance to take on the job, but it ends quickly, and a couple of scenes later, the two are laughing it up. It took me awhile to figure out why I was enjoying the movie still, despite the lack of conflict, and I realized it’s because we tend to enjoy watching friendships develop, especially friendships where the two parties would normally never interact with one another. I know it sounds silly, but darn it if it doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
But what sets this script apart from all those other French films is that it adds structure to its story. A plot thread emerges that gives the story focus. That thread is, of course, the woman Philippe writes letters to. Now that Philippe has a GOAL (the eventual meeting with this girl) and that goal has STAKES attached to it (he’s fallen in love with her, tied all his future hope to her), we have something to look forward to. If not for that, we would’ve been stuck watching a couple of guys laughing for two hours. That would’ve eventually gotten boring, no matter how much we liked the two of them.
I recently watched a French movie on Netflix, for example, called Russian Dolls, that was one of the worst movies I’ve seen all year. And, not surprisingly, it had all the French trappings embedded in its fiber. We watched multiple people simply “experiencing life” in France. There was no rhyme or reason to who we cut to or why. There was a main character, but it was never clear what he was doing. He may have been writing a book, but why and for what purpose, I don’t know. That film failed, in my opinion, because it didn’t have that structure, it didn’t have that overriding central plot thread that the audience looked forward to.
I come back to it again and again on the site, but that’s because it works. Give your character a GOAL and the reader starts caring. Even if you’re writing a drama centered around “characters experiencing life” that doesn’t involve the mafia, or bank robberies, or robots. Give you main character something he’s going after. It’ll pull what are otherwise a bunch of drifting characters into a plot orbit.
Part of the problem here – and this seems to be very much a French problem – is that the French writers and directors (who are often the same person, which is part of the problem) believe that if they just explore life’s randomness, that their movies will be entertaining because they’ll be “lifelike” and “real.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If we don’t feel like we’re pushing towards something, if we don’t believe that all of this has a purpose, we lose interest. If we wanted “real life” we wouldn’t be at the movies, would we? We can get real life from…err… REAL LIFE! Movies are “exceptional life.”
Another reason the script works is because there’s a fascinating irony at the heart of the main character. Here is a man who “has” everything (all this money!). And yet he can’t enjoy any of it. For whatever reason, audiences love watching that. This movie doesn’t work, for example, if Philippe is poor. It’s only because he’s rich that we’re captivated. This is why it’s important to really think about your main character before you write your script. Is there something fascinating about him/her? Are you getting everything you possibly can out of his character? If not, rethink the character.
The Intouchables proves that whatever kind of script you write, a summer blockbuster or a character-driven drama, at the heart of your story should be some sort of objective to tie all the loose strands together. A lot of these French films would be better served by following this simple advice!
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth watching
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Add an Element of Danger – You can enrich your story by adding an element of danger to one of your characters, the possibility that they might do something or are capable of something bad. Here, Driss has a criminal record, which Philippe’s lawyer points out to him. This choice lines the story with an impending payoff of this danger, something that because we’re told to anticipate, we pay more attention. In other words, it’s yet another subtle trick to keep a reader focused.
What I learned 2: Beware the car crash backstory! – Beware giving any character who was in an accident in your script the “car crash backstory”. It’s the easiest and most obvious of all the accident backstories and therefore draws rolled eyes from experienced readers. Instead, go with an accident that more organically represents your character. Here, Philippe injured himself during a hang-gliding accident, very much a “rich man’s” leisurely activity. That’s the kind of backstory that feels organic and honest, so it’s no surprise that it adds even more to Philippe’s character.