Dir/scr: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache. France. 2011. 109mins
A slickly made French comedy that hits all the right beats despite some troublingly glib social assertions, Untouchables (Les Untouchables) should find a wide audience on its French release November 2, and, through Gaumont, an international market on a level perhaps akin to Heartbreakers. Film was the closing night of the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Untouchables is an amiable production that asks to be liked.
With winning central performances from Francois Cluzet as a rich tetraplegic and Omar Sy as the Senegalese jailbird from the projects who become one of cinema’s more improbable odd couples - although this is based on a true-life story - Untouchables has a well-defined commercial streak, hitting all the notes for this genre with a practiced deftness.
But in making Sy an endlessly-cheerful naïf whose life is put straight by paid employment as a carer, even as he loosens up the stuffy, snooty Parisians around him with his straight-talking, jive-walking ways, writer-directors Toledano and Nakache work in very broad strokes for this mainstream comedy.
The successful team behind Just Friends, So Close, and Those Happy Days, here they tackle the story of French aristo Philippe Pozzo de Borgo, confined to a wheelchair after a paragliding accident, with no feeling from the neck down.
Toledano and Nakache match ‘him’ - this is evidently a fictionalised version of Pozzo de Borgo’s life - with Driss, an uneducated tough-guy from the banlieus who applies for the job of carer in order to retain his housing benefit.
Inspired by a documentary on the real-life couple that was aired in 2003, Untouchables was made with the full co-operation of Pozzo de Borgo, who appears in the end credits and was insistent that his story should be framed as a comedy.
Mostly accurate in its depiction of life as a tetraplegic (although Philippe would surely have more than one carer), Untouchables can feel unreal, almost Hollywood-ish, in terms of the financial cushion that Philippe sits on. Zipping around in a private jet gives Untouchables a confusing air of sheer fantasy even as it claims to be “real-life”, but the film does make some strong points about society’s attitudes to disability, effectively conveyed through the mechanism of comedy.
Cluzet is strong as Philippe, and although he is restrained to facial expression, this is still a whole-body performance that works. Despite Sy’s utterly winning presence, though, Driss’ character can be reminiscent of Tom Hanks playing a grown-up in Big, and there’s at times a patronising air to this production. Toledano and Nakache mine all the expected comic beats, and then some, from Driss’s open-mouthed amazement at his posh bath to falling-about hilarity at Wagner and the couple’s ‘clever’ exploitation of the ridiculousness of the art world to Driss’s commercial advantage.
There’s even a sequence where Driss’s dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire prompts classical-music-loving upper class Parisians to move off their Louis XIV chairs and get loose (apart from anything else, Boogie Wonderland seems an astonishingly safe musical choice for a street kid who just got out of a Parisian prison). All credit to Sy, then, for pulling it off with aplomb; he has a physicality that gives the film its energy, and, overall, Untouchables is an amiable production that asks to be liked. Audiences should respond.
Technical credits are slick across the board, lifted by the almost-anachronistic score, and, while Clotilde Mollet provides some nice back up as Philippe’s assistant Marcelle, this really is a two-man show.
Production company: Quad Productions
International sales: Gaumont, www.gaumont.fr
Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun
Cinematography: Mathieu Vadapied
Production designer: Francois Emmanuelli
Editor: Dorian Rigal-Ansous
Main cast: Francois Cluzet, Omar Sy, Ann Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clothilde Mollet