Philippe Pozzo di Borgo: “The presence of the other is therapy”

In your new book, you write that Intouchables subjected you to an “unbearable”, “very tiring” exposure. Why receive us?

For the good cause. I can thus speak of the great adventure that is the association Simon of Cyrene, of which I am the honorary president. It receives 5% of the revenue fromUntouchables and makes the severely handicapped live with able-bodied people in the middle of the city. I visited their house in Nantes. There is always as much hilarity, kindness. I discovered the great fragility after this film which, next to it, is a nice comedy with healthy people. I thought I was the aristo of disability with my third cervical exploded. But there are far more terrible cases.

Did it weaken you?

No, but it disarms. The most trying after the film was the thousands of emails received from people with disabilities. I discovered upsetting situations. The assistant was crying at the same time as me while reading them. Answering them took me eight to ten hours a day; a psychiatrist helped me. I didn’t always know how to relieve them.

Do you think you have helped any?

I touch people when I testify. Some call me “François”, like the actor ofUntouchables… It’s not serious. This film is a bit absurd: it shows a rich aristo who can afford anything. In reality, 90% of disabled people live in poverty. I didn’t really realize it. Loneliness and financial difficulties are very painful for them. Disability remains a tragedy.

You are a “rich aristo” and you are very real…

Yes, but my case is very marginal. Having a minimum of comfort and security changes everything. It allows you to connect with others. If we gave more to the disabled, I am convinced that society would gain, because they help people to look into themselves and overcome their neuroses. A disabled person is a healer of society.

At the screening of Intouchables, you write that you found the film “a bit banal, unsurprisingly, almost documentary”.

I felt like I was seeing things that I knew very well. But I realized that my neighbors were very moved. Something was happening that was beyond us. I hadn’t at all perceived the relevance of the screenplay and the acting… Some scenes didn’t seem believable, like the teapot spilled on François Cluzet’s leg to check that he wasn’t feeling anything. It would create mortal wounds… I left it to the directors, Toledano and Nakache. Their works are brilliant, funny, sensitive.

You develop a beautiful spirituality in your book…

I don’t feel very spiritual, to be honest. I remain pragmatic, like the entrepreneur that I have been (he was director of the Moët Hennessy champagne brands, editor’s note). But the silence, the stillness, especially the ceiling you stare at for months, forces you to become one. You return to yourself. To be spiritual requires retreat. My first wife, who died of cancer, hadn’t seen this side of me at all. She was very religious. Me, I was almost derogatory on this subject, it exasperated me. I am not saying that I am a believer or not a believer. I don’t have an intimate conversation with God. By dint of looking at the ceiling, I happened to hear a voice… But it was mine (laugh). Or rather the voice of the child that I had been, of the innocence that we often lose with adulthood. I do not despair one day of being in conversation. Or in conversion.

You were a successful man, but superficial, you admit. Why do disasters have to happen to call into question our life choices?

To address questions that you do not address, you have to stop suddenly. Be silent. Without it, you find it difficult to reform yourself. Our society never takes the time to take a break.

What are the “riches of the invalid” and the “tragedies of the able-bodied”?

The able-bodied that I was was missing the point. I sometimes have the nightmare of being able-bodied and missing out on my entire existence because I didn’t realize there was anything other than restlessness. The essential is not necessarily the spiritual. It is in simplicity, humility, listening, things that I did not know how to do. When you’ve been in bed for months, you finally detect the sounds, the smells, the presence of another in the room. You realize that you are not the center of the world. The creation is exceptional. Once you agree to fit in, you feel better.

What are your ways to be happy?

Being in relationship is what is most nourishing. Forgetting yourself a little to consider the other. There is what my daughter Wijdane calls “the Pozzo break”: stopping for fifteen minutes a day. Reset to be with again.

Your former assistant, Abdel, who inspired the character of Omar Sy, left for Algeria after getting married. Are you hurt that you haven’t heard from him for five years?

I’m more worried than hurt. It doesn’t look like him. He always gave me news. He wanted to set up a chicken factory. He needed permission from the army. I wonder if he’s not in prison… He’s always been a boss, a little on the run. He changed phones every three months, always owed money to others. He was in prison for theft. He had applied as an assistant to me to prove that he was looking for a job. He stayed ten years by my side, finally.

You write that if euthanasia were legal, you would have chosen to die twenty-nine years ago…

Like 95% of the French. In the hospital, I often see new accident victims in terrible emotional and financial misery. They don’t really know what to do anymore… Imagine what will happen if they are offered to die. It is a terrible aggression. We will tell them that they have a choice. But a man with extreme incontinence will almost feel compelled to say yes so as not to be a burden on his loved ones. While you can change your mind, like me. Why shouldn’t our society respect extreme fragility?

Not to do so is to send the message that we will be forgotten if we have an accident.

Do you have any regrets?

No. I don’t regret having had an accident. You don’t survive if you have regrets. But remorse, yes. I was so “con” in my forty years of validity that I’m sometimes a little ashamed. I was not at the level of my wife and my children. I was absent. Attentive to their comfort, yes. But that’s not life.

Why did you write this book?

It’s silly to have discovered things and not to do anything with them… If my experience can help others not to go astray like me, so much the better.

His Bio

1951 Born in Tunis.

1973 Marriage to Beatrice.

1993 Tetraplegia following a paragliding accident.

1996 Death of Béatrice from cancer.

2001 Publication of his book the ssecond breath (Bayard).

2004 Meeting and marriage with Khadija in Morocco.

2011 Movie release Untouchables .

Philippe Pozzo di Borgo: “The presence of the other is therapy”