"As well as sharing a sense of humour, they were both on the
margins of society – a disabled man and a criminal. That, he
thinks, explains why they came to depend on each other, enrich
each other's lives and bridge the race and class divide."
The Telegraph's Nigel Farndale on the true life
relationship between the pair who inspired the
movie, Philipe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou
Apologies for the lateness of this review – real world work taking up a lot of hours, including usually spare ones recently, so I'll save us all time as the movie's not long for the cinema in the UK. If you like movies about friendship with warmth and humour to spare, this is one of the best made in the last few years (that I've seen). Go and catch it at the cinema while it lasts. For once the marketing might of Harvey Weinstein has not filled my local UK cinema for this little gem of a movie and it's such a shame. It's been huge all over the world except for one country – more on that later. I predict a word of mouth DVD hit... Want a little more to go on? True story; French, quadriplegic wealthy Philippe hires an ex-con Driss as a carer; bonding ensues. Not enough? Read on.
There was a box office report in the 80s that stated that of the top ten movie blockbusters at the time, the only one that didn't feature a significant amount of special effects was Beverly Hills Cop. I put forward the simple idea that Eddie Murphy (in his hey day) was a special effect. I felt the same about Omar Sy playing Driss, the unlikely carer of quadriplegic Philippe in the surprisingly funny and, uh, touching Untouchable. It's just a coincidence that both Murphy and Sy are black. I'm talking about that huge appetite for life that they both expel from the screen, the energy and 'bigness' that both men naturally exude. As Axel Foley would say "Get the fuck outta here!" Sy is a bigger man physically but he moves with a grace belying his physique and as an exact opposite of his aristocratic charge, he's a perfect fit. Driss is a disenfranchised ex-con from the Parisian Projects whose big heart and moral sense is never questioned despite his prison sentence for stealing, his estrangement from his own family and his habit of using violence and intimidation to solve problems. In fact, how the actor conveys profound goodness inside the brittle carapace of his violent, defensive face he thrusts at the world is a delight to watch. Sy plays it with an honesty that's quite simply mesmeric. Great actors convince you that there is no crew there – it's 'real'. And that full beam headlight smile! No wonder it's on the poster.
Here is a man from a criminal background (a past made to feel almost irrelevant though well noted in the film) whose passion and capacity for living is more pronounced than his desire for a certain redhead (a long teased sub-plot but a fun one). Take a man who has been raised to see the essential reality of a situation and place him in a privileged world of high art and string octets and watch the absurdity take root and bloom. If the scene at the opera doesn't evoke guffaws then you must never take any notice of my opinions on comedy ever again. Driss's questioning and ridiculing of traditionally held ideas and ideals in the world of the super-rich orbits planet cliché very closely but the movie is made with a very traditional and meticulous craft that never feels tired or careworn. It is what's known as 'invisible technique'. I would imagine the direction would focus on character at the expense of any directorial histrionics. Given that the movie starts with a well shot and crafted car chase is a stylistic departure from the rest of the film but then so is an actual car chase from Philippe's sedentary life.
It comes as a bigger surprise to me that there were two directors. Almost all the director double acts are brothers. Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano do a superb job with a brilliantly chosen cast. Considering this job's importance, I'm surprised there's no Oscar category for casting. I'm burning with curiosity how the two directors actually went about their respective jobs (one interview mentions that all the other things you have to be, to make a film these days, renders a compatible partner a must). Directing is one of those tasks synonymous with being a ship's captain. I don't think there have ever been two ship captains on a single ship... However they performed their roles, the result is a moving, true story about overcoming obstacles and social barriers to see the heart of a person, to know someone well and to love them despite what's stacked against them. Even the minor roles are sketched with such deftness of touch, that hardly any character is forgettable. I have focused on Omar Sy but every star turn must have equally gifted actors to play against. Despite being able to move only his head, François Cluzet as Philippe manages to convey a very sly intelligence (he 'sees' through people easily enough and his accident has left him no tolerance for fools). What he has going for him is a disarmingly honest manner, a smile with integrity (its presence is a reward that's been well earned) and an appreciative wit. Comedy is difficult. Comedians tell us this. A lot. But acting convincingly that you find something funny at the eleventh take is a real skill. I never once stepped out of the film and the relationship at the core of it feels real and convincing.
That's because it is. Well, I imagine some of the incidents are cinematically made up but the movie is based on a very real relationship. There has been a little unease over the odd choice to change the Algerian Abdel into Senegalese Driss. Interestingly Abdel loved the movie and said that in reality he'd been more outrageous. The real Philippe said in an interview (in a moment of sly humour) "I'm clapping with both hands!" Someone noted that to have a sympathetic Muslim character in today's political climate would have been the responsible thing to portray but there are a number of circumstances that excuse this casting oddity. Firstly, in Paris, if you're from the projects, black, white, Muslim, Christian etc. – these distinctions make no difference. Having limited options in social status or work unites them all, hence the flourishing criminal element. When the choices are so stark, people are pushed to the edge. Secondly, the film-makers had obviously loved working with Omar Sy in two of their previous movies and if there's one thing directors love, it's actors they know who can deliver. Omar Sy does much more than that.
A huge success in its country of origin, unsurprisingly Harvey Weinstein gobbled up Untouchable for international distribution. It's not the hardest thing in the world to see why. I thought about sub-titling my review 'Driving Mr. Daisy' for a microsecond (ouch) but there are curmudgeons out there, perhaps unmoved by the drama, that will reduce the movie to the clichés it sometimes revels in and those it skirts so neatly around. Some critics in the States have gone so far to accuse this movie as promoting the "Uncle Tom, Yes Masser" stereotype". At best, it's an absurd slur and given the Parisian context, it also starkly points out two things; an ignorance of the Parisian culture the movie is depicting and two, the absurd over-sensitivity over racial issues. In the film both men are to themselves, equals (if not socially or financially). Oman Sy was not cast to promote an old, offensive, racist stereotype. He was cast because he's a bloody marvelous actor who happens to be black playing a character inspired by an Algerian who has positively signed off on the movie when in a perfect position to decry it. He won the French Oscar, the Caesar, for this performance. A degree of colour blindness is necessary to navigate through this world. At the risk of tortuous tautology, people are people. Black, white, brown, whatever... everyone has an opportunity to play any role. You only have to be convincing. Yorkshireman Ben Kingsley was pretty convincing as Gandhi (OK, his father was of Indian descent) but the point stands. By being overly politically correct, you risk swinging the pendulum to the other side. The mere suggestion that Untouchable is promoting the servile black to the privileged white is palpably ridiculous.
It helps that Driss's musical tastes mirror some of my own, music which belts out aliveness and the celebration of joy despite the weight of negative things bearing down on the characters. I can't dance. People very close to me have told me this. At the time I was devastated. But if I play a few of Driss's choices and I'm on my own... Well, I'm not responsible for breakages. Driss moves into this area of celebration once in this movie and aside from the physical performance, he moves so well and with such abandon that like a benevolent vortex, everyone is sucked into his joy and all find the experience exhilarating. This is another cliché the movie itself dances around. The stuffy aristocrat is taught how to experience life by the down at heel working class (or worse if the fug surrounding the Parisian projects is to be believed). But the movie has an ace up its sleeve (wait for the end credits for the shot of the 'real' two men).
It's a disappointing and mystifying fact that the film did not set the American box office alight. OK, limited distribution, it's in French, there are evil subtitles (all subtitles are evil in the US, no?). Reports are that where it played, it played gangbusters to full auditoria. I am slightly dismayed to see on Box Office's Mojo's listings for the film that under 'Genre' the movie is labeled 'Foreign' – as if 'foreign' is a genre. This is unintentionally but hugely insulting. "Oh, it's one of those foreign films..." Like pedophilia in the 70s, is this just the way America sees the world and we should accept it? The film, unsurprisingly, got a few rough rides with critics crying "Cliché!" a few times but the rest of the world fell for this charming gem big time. I can't imagine it was hugely expensive to make but has made just shy of $400 million and just over 2% of that generated in America. Boy, that love affair with French cinema faded out really fast. And for entertainment's sake, for my money, Untouchable is light years ahead of The Artist. Catch it while you can.