‘The Intouchables’ versus ‘The Upside’ and Orientalism

When I heard that Omar Sy was playing Lupin, a character I had first been introduced to by a Japanese anime, I watched the Netflix series and then wanted to see more of Sy. That lead me to “The Intouchables” or “Intouchables,” which made me cringe as a woman of East Asian descent. Moreover, when I did some research, I found even the casting of Sy objectionable.

Sy was born in France, but his parents are from West Africa. His mother is from Mauritania, a country that is 90 percent situated in the Sahara although the majority of its population lives in the temperate south. His father was Senegalese. Sy traces his background to the Fulani.

Neither of these countries were part of what was once considered the Orient. At one time the Orient was defined as North Africa and Asia, ending at the Pacific Islands. When Edward Said was writing about “Orientalism” he was specifically writing about the Middle East and North Africa.

Tunisia, the northern most country of Africa, was, like its bordering country Algeria, considered part of the Orient (“The Orient in North Africa: Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg’s Tunis: Land und Leute,” January 2012). France, like the United States, needs to face its prejudices and stereotypes of what was once the Orient and “The Intouchables” is a missed opportunity to deal with that in two different ways.

“The Intouchables” and the similarly cast American version, “The Upside,” were inspired by the relationship between the aristocratic and very rich Philippe Pozzo Di Borg and his aide Abdel Sellou. Sellou was born in Algeria. He might be considered Black because he did have dark hair and skin, but he is not sub-Saharan African.

Sellou was only 21 when he was hired to take care of Pozzo Di Borg. Sy was 33 when he played Bakary “Driss” Bassari. 

The Films

The film begins in the middle. Driss is driving around Paris recklessly and without a drivers license. He makes a bet with Philippe that he can lose the police. He loses that bet, but then he has another bet: He can get them a police escort. Together, Driss and Philippe fool the police and get their police escort, using Philippe’s disability as a pretext for a medical emergency. 


Flashing back, we compare nicely shined shoes of men waiting to be interviewed. Only Driss has casual white tennis shoes. Driss doesn’t really want the job and is under qualified, but Philippe is intrigued by his daring and charm. Driss is hired. We soon learn that Driss is a thief, has a record and has been a deadbeat dad. Philippe is also a father but he is a widower. Together, they push and pull and learn from each other. Sy learns about classical music, but isn’t impressed. Philippe learns about contemporary music because Driss loves Earth, Wind and Fire and Cool and the Gang. 

Driss is exposed to art and, after seeing some modern art, believes that he can do as well. Philippe slyly helps him sell a painting. The two eventually have a falling out and that leads to Philippe falling into a deep depression until Driss is summoned back and takes him a joy ride. 

They also have Asian masseuses come in for their pleasure. These women are first introduced with a advertisement on a junk mail postcard. Later, Driss has one to his room and while he might be getting a massage, he’s on his bed. The film doesn’t feature nudity and sex, although the men do obliquely talk about sex. These women os Asian descent are not part of the narrative. They are not important to the story. They don’t have names. They are part of the benefits of living rich. The camera doesn’t treat them with the same respect afforded the other women. This is also true for the Hollywood remake. 

In the US Hollywood remake, “The Upside,” Kevin Hart (as Dell Scott) and Bryan Cranston (Phillip Lacasse) are in New York. Lacasse was a self-made man. Lacasse has a physical therapist, Maggie (Iranian actress Rahavard Farahani). Nicole Kidman is Lacasse’s personal assistant Yvonne Pendleton. Already, all the women are more glamorous than the original French version, including the physical therapist. It’s lovely that the physical therapist is from West Asia, but she is also eye candy. However, the camera respects her much more than the two women, possibly part Asian or Latino–in any case non-Black and possibly non-white, that Dell procures to give the men massages. In both the French and the American film, the women are not listed in the cast credits.

Both films  dances around the subject of racism between the disadvantaged Black person and the wealthy White person who become  unlikely friends, yet both stumble in their approach to what was once called the Orient. Imagine how much richer  the path of discovery would have been for either film, if Driss or Dell had been Algerian. Or in the case of Dell, Afghan American or Persian American would have added another layer of texture. We’d have been musically taken into genres of music like the Algerian Raï  or Persian traditional music. It’s hard to believe that Phillip Lacasse might not know Aretha Franklin. Think of what we could learn about North African or West Asian American living in New York post-9/11. And we’d have to confront the problem of prejudice and racism when the person isn’t so different in physical appearance and then there’s the possibility of learning something about Islam.

The French film is superior although the problem of Orientalism is more prominent. The real  Philippe Pozzo Di Borg married and reportedly is living in Morocco.  That romance seems more intriguing than the one the French film settles for. Sellou lives in Algeria. Sy won Best Actor at the César Awards, and the film won Outstanding International Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards. Sy and Cluzet also won Best Actor and the film won the Tokyo Grand Prix award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. 

Currently, “The Intouchables” (in French with subtitles) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ is streaming on Amazon Prime Video while “The Upside”⭐️⭐️ is available to stream on Hulu. 

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