Must Watch: The Intouchables
By Stephanie Travers
When I walked into an interview for a caregiving position back in December 2008, I had no idea what to expect. With zero experience in the medical field, let alone assistive caregiving, I was there on what I can only describe as an instinct; I had seen a Craigslist ad when looking for new work in my home of Bellevue, Washington, and something about Michael-Ryan’s post spoke to me.
The ad was simple and straightforward; he was 24-year-old quadriplegic male looking for a caregiver. He didn’t care about experience, but was more concerned with compatibility. I was a 23-year-old bartender/student who was working the morning shift at Starbucks and hating every moment of it. I decided to take a chance and gave him a call.
I am not sure whether it was his smile or the dogs that were demanding my attention while I interviewed, but I was immediately at ease in M.R’s world. The “interview” felt more like a casual conversation between two people looking for mutual interests, and the longer I sat there, the more I saw the man sitting in the chair instead of the disability that I was signing up to assist him with. I am pretty sure we agreed that I had the job before I left.
The relationship that evolved from that interview is one that I imagine many caregivers are fortunate enough to experience, but it is also the subject of an award-winning French movie, based on a true story, that is creating a buzz in the SCI community.
The movie the Intouchables (French for Untouchables) is a feel-good comedy that highlights the friendship that develops between a wealthy Parisian quadriplegic named Philippe and his caregiver, Driss, a poor Senegalese man from the slums of the city. It can definitely be summed up as a story of “unlikely friendship,” with all of the required trappings; Philippe learns how to smoke marijuana and “let go” as a result of the relationship, while Driss gets an education in fine art and classical music and learns the meaning of integrity from Philippe. While these elements aren’t exactly original, both of the major actors do an exceptional job of bringing them to the screen.
Despite the clichés, the film manages to illuminate a larger truth that many people with major disabilities are forced to deal with; no matter what, you are going to need help getting through your day. For an individual with a condition like quadriplegia, a caregiver is necessary around the clock. While finding someone who is competent in delivering quality care is important, compatibly cannot be overlooked. Nobody wants to pass the majority of their day with somebody they don’t get along with.
Oftentimes a family member can stand in as a caregiver, but many people’s situation demands they look to strangers.
This issue is depicted in one of the beginning sequences of the film. Philippe sits with his household manager listening to candidate after candidate ramble on about their qualifications and accolades. Almost all of the interviewees never even look at Philippe, choosing instead to talk around him to his assistant. He is reduced to a job, an entry on a resume, instead of a man who wants to live a fulfilling of a life as possible despite his needs. That is until Driss walks in.
So what does Driss do differently than the others? Well, he looks right at Philippe to begin with. He asks questions. He even makes fun of Philippe with irreverent jokes like:
Driss: Listen to this. Where can you find a tetraplegic?
Philippe: Where can you..I don’t know.
Driss: Where you left him.
Terrible, right? But as Philippe points out to a concerned friend who thinks Driss isn’t qualified to be a caregiver, he doesn’t want pity or suffocating sensitivity. He just wants help when he needs it. And maybe to have a good time while he’s at it, because after all, he is human.
While the depiction of their relationship was what I would definitely call romanticized, the movie still hit home for me. I laughed a lot, cried a little, and I was oftentimes reminded of the friendship that I still have with M.R. that I am so grateful for. Our friendship, like Driss and Philippe’s, is a friendship made of the stuff that quality relationships are forged from: time spent together, laughter, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, difficult conversations, more laughter, awkward moments, vulnerability, and most importantly, mutual respect. When this relationship works well, it seems to almost accelerates the bonding between the two people involved.
When people find out that I used to be M.R’s caregiver, they assume the life lesson I received from him is how fortunate I am for being able-bodied. That just isn’t the case. While I may have a more fined-tuned appreciation for my physical self because I understand his daily challenges, I think the most important thing I learned from the job was that regardless of our abilities, we all have daily challenges and needs. We all need help from the people we know to face those challanges and have those needs met. Healthy relationships are always a two-way street.
I would recommend this film to anyone who has experienced either being cared for, or who has been a caregiver, because it cuts through to that exact point, illustrating that the care given is never directed towards one individual, but is an understanding and respectful exchange between two.
Watch the trailer below, and catch the movie in your local theater; hopefully you don’t mind subtitles.