Intouchables and Hegemonic Masculinity

While I was spending the holidays in France, I had the opportunity to go see this blockbuster on the left. Intouchables has been a tremendous success in France. It is largely a feel-good movie. Philippe (the character played by François Cluzet) is a very wealthy, quadriplegic man who hires Drisse (Omar Sy), from the projects, to be his caretaker. The setup involves some very obvious “clash of the classes” where Drisse gets exposed to, and consistently derides, the high culture Philippe enjoys (from contemporary painting, to classical opera and music).

But ultimately, Drisse’s low class no-nonsense, no-pity attitude grows on Philippe (and the audience) as he treats Philippe like a human being, and not a near-vegetable. Ultimately, the friendship between the men transcends class differences and improves them both. Like I said, a feel-good movie. One can see why audiences would enjoy it. The dialogues are sharp, there is quite a bit of humor in-between a few clichés. But it is a bit à l’eau de rose, as we say in France. And any movie that has Earth, Wind and Fire’s September as its opening soundtrack has won me over right off the bat. Seriously, there is no better song.

It is a theme one has seen many times over: individualization can destroy class differences as people from different background get to know each other individually. That, in itself, is a cliché and the critiques have indeed pounced a bit on the unrealistic nature of the main plot (see here, here, and here, for instance). Most critiques have focused on the “it’s not that easy” aspect of transcending class relations.

However, there is one aspect of the film, that is central to me, and that all the critiques I have read failed to mention: the film is a promotion of hegemonic masculinity. Of course, several critiques have mentioned the casual machismo of Drisse as he flirts more or less seriously with women around him. But the central theme of the film is how Drisse, the hegemonic male, helps Philippe (whose masculinity is gone, nor just because of impotence but because of his paralysis and complete dependency on women and non-hegemonic men – the parade of hesitant, barely competent home health care assistants is both funny and rather obvious) reclaim his masculinity (the movie ends with Philippe finally meeting face to face the woman with whom he has corresponded through letters and phone calls, hiding his condition).

Everything about Drisse is exposing what a “real man” is and does. Drisse bullies his way into Philippe’s office not to interview for the job but get his unemployment benefits, pushing the “real” candidate aside. On the first day on the job, he frets about having to dress Philippe and putting stockings on him (for blood circulation). He very clumsily flirts with the attractive assistant (who turns out to be a lesbian, “bye dudes” – yells Drisse – as he leaves the job, to the assistant and her partner) and we now all understand why she resisted his advances. He makes fun of the unspoken attraction between the other main assistant (who is older, so, he does not flirt with her) and the gardener (another dominated male who has longed for the Yvonne for a long time, in silence).

Rather than pick the minivan equipped for the wheelchair, he picks the Maserati. When he can’t get it out of the driveway because the neighbor always parks his car in front of the entrance, despite “no parking” signs, he drags the offender out of his car and bangs his head against the sign. He roughly does the same with the ex-boyfriend of Philippe’s daughter. In other words, Drisse, by proxy, rebuilds Philippe masculinity by brutalizing other men and boys. He even asks Philippe permission to slap his daughter around a bit (she’s a spoiled brat) because he is Philippe’s arms and legs, after all. Philippe refuses but does give his daughter a tongue-lashing, reclaiming his parental authority. It certainly helps that Drisse is physically more impressive than all the other men in the film and he unashamedly throws his physicality around. He becomes the body that Philippe no longer has.

And, of course, Drisse allows Philippe to get some sexual satisfaction by hiring prostitutes that trigger Philippe’s remaining erogenous points (his ears, while Drisse gets it the usual way). The only reversal of the relationship between Philippe and Drisse occurs in two occasions: the flight in a private jet, and the parasailing. In both occasions, Drisse is reduced to a passive position which makes him insecure (in the plane, he can do nothing about the turbulence, and during the parasailing, he has to leave it all to the instructor who controls the whole thing). But for everything else, Drisse pushes his hegemonic masculinity through Philippe’s (highly feminized) household. He consistently bullies non-hegemonic males. And it is precisely this hegemonic masculinity that Philippe misses when Drisse has to go to resolve a family situation.

So, this is an aspect of the film that most critiques seem to have missed as, again, it is central to the film. Is it because most critique are men or because gender analysis still has a long way to go in France? Probably both.

3 thoughts on “Intouchables and Hegemonic Masculinity

  1. But Driss is also in a feminine position, as a nurse, even a male one. And he has to do the dirty work, which is more often women’s work (such as removing fecal matter from a tetraplegic man) : there’s several scenes where a woman teaches Driss how to do her work (massage, cleaning).
    I would rather see this movie as the impossibility of achieving hegemonic masculinity.

    • Yes, however, (1) he resists having to accomplish such tasks he deems too ‘feminine” and (2) he is not a nurse, he does not become one. His doing the feminine and “degrading” tasks are only for Philippe, not as a general task he’ll do for other people.

  2. Pingback: The Global Sociology Blog - French Films That Succeeds in The US

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