Directors: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano
Stars: François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny
Plot: A rich quadriplegic decides to hire a caretaker, but ignores the candidates with experience and training to employ a young man from the projects.
Films about disability have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Inside I’m Dancing, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside have shown that there are stories to be told that can be utterly convincing without resorting to schmaltz or sentimentality on an epic scale. Not only this, but French cinema in general is now enjoying increasing success abroad following the release of award-laden The Artist and it is The Weinstein Company who brings us Untouchable, a charming fish-out-of-water story with a twist.
One night in Paris, Driss (Sy) is driving Philippe (Cluzet) around the city in the latter’s Maserati Quattroporte at high-speed, when they are pulled over by the police. Driss makes a bet with his passenger that he can get an escort – Philippe pretends to have a stroke and they are guided to the local hospital, at which point Driss waits for the police to leave and promptly drives away. We then flashback to their first meeting; Philippe is sitting in a wheelchair, while he and his assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) conduct interviews for the position of caretaker at his mansion. After a number of frankly dull interviewees who fail to capture the imagination, Driss walks in with the intention of merely obtaining a signature to prove that he applied for the job so he can get his state benefits, but he is initially rejected and told to come back the next day.
Driss returns to his small Parisian apartment he shares with his family, but his aunt tells him to leave, having not heard from him in six months. He goes back to the mansion for the signature and finds to his surprise that Philippe has employed him on a trial basis as a live-in carer. Driss is shocked to learn about the extent of Philippe’s disability and the amount of care that he has to give his employer. A friend of Philippe warns him that Driss has a criminal record, but he dismisses these concerns as his new charge doesn’t show him any pity – and that’s exactly what Philippe needs. As the pair become closer over time, Philippe reveals that his wife died of a terminal illness and he became quadriplegic following a paragliding accident. Driss also discovers that Philippe has been corresponding with a mystery woman from Dunkirk and goes about trying to get him to meet her in person and hopefully get some semblance of normality back into his life.
Untouchable has a formula that is nothing new. Two completely separate worlds collide as rich and poor come together in a friendship which changes the outlook of both protagonists. There’s a sense that Trading Places forms the basis for the plot, with Omar Sy’s Driss playing the Eddie Murphy character as he enters completely unfamiliar surroundings, while François Cluzet represents the token stark contrast as a Dan Aykroyd equivalent – the two join forces in a similar manner to defy the establishment. There’s also an exaggeration in the obligatory ‘based on a true story’ foreword shown at the beginning of the film; the real-life Omar (actually named Abdel Sellou) is Algerian as opposed to the portrayed Senegalese – this is evidently an attempt to highlight the differences in not only class and culture, but also race, in the name of manipulation. That aside, great credit is due to writer/director duo of Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, who have a script which is buzzing with very witty one-liners and has genuine moments of hilarity that tread the fine line with poignancy and tragedy.
Perhaps the most marked aspect of the film is that it is so accessible. The opening few scenes crackle along at a furious pace (with a neat but short car chase to start with) – if you think that watching a foreign film with subtitles is a drag, then welcome to the film that will surely change your mind. The level of humour is mostly focused on Driss’ wisecracks, mixed with a touch of slapstick, but this enhances proceedings rather than detracting from the superb screenplay. Omar Sy’s charisma shines through his character Driss, making him instantly likeable. For the film to work, it is essential for Driss to be played by an actor with a strong screen presence and Sy fulfils this requirement and then some. His witty one-liners are not just confined to the French sense of humour – they will be appreciated by even the most cynical os drôle. François Cluzet, France’s answer to Dustin Hoffman (surely look out for a ready-made trans-Atlantic twin drama/comedy in the making) once again excels, here as Philippe. His efforts ensure that there is no mawkishness or sentimentality surrounding his paraplegic character, even though his character’s disability is plain to see, Cluzet injects enough humour into his physical performance to help us to enjoy the relationship between him and Driss.
Reports suggest that there’s a Hollywood remake of Untouchable in the works – and it’s clear to see why. However, it’s difficult to comprehend how the makers of the new version will be able to replicate the fantastic chemistry that Cluzet and Sy have throughout this terrific original. Clichéd and predictable it may be, but at the heart of everything is a touching yet most importantly hilariously comic look at how friendships can happen in the most unlikely of places and under the oddest circumstances.