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A fun movie about pity and the lack thereof

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The man in the wheelchair hit a wall of pity as he entered the classroom.

Claes Hultling was about to hold a lecture as a part of a university course aimed at journalists and PR people, a version of “Medicine for dummies”.

We knew a bit of the story, how he had broken his neck as he dived into the water and hit a rock at age 30. Now he was paralyzed from the neck and down.

Of course we pitied him. We pitied and pitied and pitied until our eyes almost popped out. But of course that didn’t change a thing.

Then he started to talk. He talked for three hours straight, about himself, about how to live a life with a spinal cord injury, about research and treatment and about his work at the spinal cord injury unit that he had founded. He made us tear up. But he also made us laugh and he lit a light in our eyes that wouldn’t go away.

And when the lecture was over my view on people with spinal cord injuries was completely changed. Yes, it sucks to be in this predicament. As he says, there isn’t a day when he isn’t pissed that he broke his neck. You can learn to live with it, but never accept it.

But never again would I look at them with the eyes full of pity, reducing them to vulnerable, incapable victims. The vast majority of those who break their necks are young men with an appetite for extreme sports and adventuring. And even if they now sit in a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean that their car preferences have changed. They should be fast and cool. Just a little bit adjusted for their needs.

I can only think of a handful of speeches I’ve listened to in my life that have left such a profound impact on me. And my thoughts went to it again as I watched The Intouchables the other night.

An unlikely friendship
This is a new French comedy about the unlikely friendship between Philippe, a wealthy man who was paralyzed after a skydiving accident, and Driss, a suburban bum, recently let out of jail.

Against all odds and in competition with people who have far more education, Driss is hired as Philippe’s assistant. He has one qualification which the other candidates lack: he doesn’t look at the handicapped man as a victim and he doesn’t drench him in pity. He treats him like an equal and takes him along for crazy car rides through the night, which as opposed to pity makes a difference to Phillip’s life.

They embark on a journey, a trip that occasionally is bumpy as it’s a classic case of two worlds colliding. And as you could predict, it will change them both to the better.

Does it sound a little predictable? It is. Does the stereotype warning signal take off a few times throughout the film? It does.

Is it a crowd pleaser? Oh, definitely! I watched it in a full theatre and the moment it ended, applauses broke out, louder than I heard at the premier of The Dark Knight Rises. And as we left the theatre, I heard several saying to their friends in the party that they absolutely loved it, that it was the funniest movie they’d seen in a long time and that they would totally recommend it to everyone they knew. I can’t remember last time I experienced such an enthusiastic response from an audience.

Some film buffs find this kind of reaction a bit hard to cope with. Who wants to be one in the crowd? Yak. It’s better to remain bitter, cynical, grumpy and special. It’s so much cooler to stand in a corner with the few people who understand you, arms crossed over the chest, sneering at the poor taste of the masses!

But this time I’m going to step out of that corner and join the crowd. Anything else would be dishonest.

The Intouchables is made in the spirit of the lecture that made such an impression on me once upon a time.

I laughed. I laughed a lot. Actually I can’t remember last time I laughed as much in a theatre. And while it’s not a sad film by any means, I also got something dusty in my eyes as I we finally got to see the real people, whose story this film is based on. Tears – not of pity, but of joy over how much life can offer, even if you come from a situation that seems hopeless at a quick glance.

The Intouchables (Intouchables, Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano, FR, 2011) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

September 27, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in The Intouchables