Intouchables is the “feel good” movie of the year. When I first heard about this true story of a quadriplegic and his caretaker, I resisted seeing it because it sounded like such a downer. Word of mouth said the film was successful because of the fine acting and sensitive directing. When doesn’t a successful film have fine acting and sensitive directing? I knew it had to be in the script, although true stories are notoriously difficult to shape. It wasn’t until the film started to unfold in front of me that I realized the main reason for its success: it’s a beautifully structured traveling angel comedy.
Traveling angel is one of the eight major comedy story structures I talk about in the Comedy class. And it’s as close to a sure thing as a genre gets. Audiences love them. In fact, I’ve never seen one fail at the box office. Mary Poppins is the most famous example in American movies, along with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Being There. We also see this form used in drama, likeDead Poet’s Society, and in westerns and detective stories.
For some reason, the French are especially good at making traveling angel comedies, with Amelie, Chocolat and Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) the most prominent examples. The French film, The Chorus, was a hugely popular traveling angel drama with music.
If Intouchables simply struck all the beats of a traveling angel comedy, it probably would have been a hit at the box office. But Intouchables uses one of the three key strategies for a film to work with critics as well as audiences: it transcends the form.
Each genre has anywhere from 8-15 story beats (story events) that must be in your story if you want to satisfy your genre audience. Transcending a genre means that you twist the beats in a way that has never been done before. You subvert the audience’s expectations and surprise them, which makes your genre story original and stand above the crowd.
Traveling angel comedy is a very precise form, with 15 unique story beats. The typical traveling angel story begins by establishing a community, and a family, in trouble. The angel then enters and proceeds to fix everyone’s problem. Notice that this approach splits the functions of the main character. The traveling angel is driving the story, but it’s the other characters who have the problems and must change.
The first way that Intouchables twists the form is by giving the traveling angel, the caretaker Driss, a psychological and moral weakness of his own. Instead of being, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way,” Driss is loud, poor, a liar and a thief. Not only do these flaws make this angel a real believable person, they give him a clear character arc that mirrors the arc of those he helps, most especially the quadriplegic, Philippe.
This technique connects with another technique these writers use to transcend the traveling angel comedy, which is to combine it with love story. Normally the angel fixes a family in trouble, along with a few members of the larger community. Solving the problems of all of these characters gives the standard angel story plenty of plot, but the beats can lack emotional intensity. The family in Intouchables is a bit dysfunctional and does succumb to Driss’s magic touch. But by far the main focus of the story is Philippe.
The effect of this choice is to add the power of the love story to the already formidable strengths of traveling angel comedy. As in the classic love story the writers use the “odd couple” technique. Where Driss is poor, loud and spontaneous, Philippe is rich, quiet and uptight. This love story between opposites has all kinds of benefits. First, it allows the writers to generate opposition between the two leads for most of the story, even as they come to like each other. Second, it sets up a double reversal where each character grows by seeing the best in the other. Third, it gives the story tremendous emotional intensity. And finally, it ties in beautifully with the classic theme of the traveling angel story, which is that the angel teaches the regimented and uptight of the world how to live life with fun and style.
Intouchables also has a valuable lesson for writers of memoir. Memoir is a surprisingly difficult form to write well, primarily because real life rarely has a natural dramatic shape. Most writers try to solve this problem by juicing the events of their life with melodramatic emotion. They don’t realize that their main problem comes not from the individual events but from the sequence of the events. That’s why the best memoir writers find another genre, like thriller or detective, to add structure to the real life events. I’m sure that most, if not all, of the events depicted in The Intouchables actually happened. But when you know the beats of the traveling angel story, you see immediately how this unique and highly choreographed genre gave Philippe’s true-life story a shape with worldwide appeal.