The Intouchables and Cinephiliac Moments

Yesterday I read this article by Christian Keathley called "The Cinephiliac Moment," in which he writes about the distinct ability of cinematic moments to take hold on our emotions and never let go. We all have moments from movies that have particularly ensnared our hearts. One example from my own cinephilia is the instant Jesse catches Céline's eye in a Paris bookshop in Before Sunset, where flashbacks of their fortuitous one-night romance nine years earlier in Before Sunrise wrap the moment in a decade of history, instantaneously.

If I had to think of one film that has recently afforded me a cinephiliac moment, it's 2011's The Intouchables, the French comedy that's reminded the world why France is so good at uplifting, truthful cinema.

Philippe, a millionaire who has become quadriplegic after a paragliding accident, employs Driss, a charismatic black man from the banlieue, as his caretaker. Philippe wants no pity from him, and Driss instead offers a pragmatic and lighthearted approach to life. Throughout their exchange, Philippe helps Driss see the finer things in life, while Driss gives Philippe some vestiges of adventure. The film watches them become unlikely but hilarious friends, and the appropriate life lessons are spooned out for us as they learn from each other.

Already the entire premise is cinephiliac - that people can come from difference to help each other - so our emotional heartstrings are already taut at the beginning of the film. And with a tasteful script, an expressive soundtrack and elegant cinematography, the film is visually and aurally easy to love.

But there is one sequence in particular in which I felt that my vast love of the cinema funneled into a sharp and emotional cinephiliac moment. Philippe needs relief from his claustrophobic body, so he and Driss drive to the Swiss Alps for some fresh air, which they get in the form of tandem-paragliding.

The beauty of cinema is almost overwhelming in this paragliding scene.  Colorful parachutes outlined against snow-topped mountains, sweeping birds-eye views, perspective shots in the open air, monumental music - we feel weightless ourselves, overcome by the joy that Philippe and Driss also feel.

Moments like these in cinema close the gap between viewer and film, so that our bodies feel transported into the diegesis and we intensely identify with the characters' experiences. Vivian Sobchack describes this relationship as a "carnal" one, where what's on screen is reproduced in our own skin. I think this is possible because of the sensory complexity of film; the magnitudes of sight and sound make us feel them physically, through touch and memory. The result is a momentary bliss, where we escape our own bodily presence and replace it with the feelings that come directly from the screen.

The escapism only ever lasts a moment, but that's another thing I love about it. If you try to hold on to it, it loses its power. So, I head back to the cinema as often as I can, seeking my next emotional and sensory thrill. If you do too, try The Intouchables, and embrace the moment when it surely comes.

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