Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Untouchable

The French film Untouchable (or Intouchables in the original) may be the biggest mainstream movie ever to be debuted as part of the Cambridge Film Festival – released in France in 2011, it went on to become the second biggest box office hit ever in that country, and has so far sold about three times as many tickets worldwide as this year’s Oscar smash The Artist. I’ve got to confess that until a few days ago I’d never even heard of it.

Untouchable is directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano and tells the true life story of a wealthy quadraplegic art-lover who recruits a barely literate recent ex-convict as his round-the-clock carer and factotum. Despite the seemingly wild inappropriateness of this appointment the pair form a close bond and open each other’s eyes to possibilities outside the restricted worlds that they’ve up till now inhabited. To be honest: I’ve seen this film before, and so have you. How often have we seen a set-up involving a rough diamond from the wrong side of the tracks who chances his way into a position in a privileged but emotionally sterile household and then proceeds to say the unsayable and break all the taboos of etiquette, resulting in first shock and disapproval but later acceptance and all-purpose touchy-feeliness? It says a lot for the skill of the film-makers and the charisma of the leads here that Untouchable is still worth watching despite the obviousness of its narrative arc.

The film’s essentially a two-hander between François Cluzet as the refined and sanguine Philippe and Omar Sy as the boisterous life-loving Driss, and both are excellent, selling their contrasting outlooks ably with the help of a sharp script that doesn’t pussyfoot around the sensitive subject of disability. It’s a film made with a light touch that exploits the comic potential implicit in scenes involving two ostensibly very different men forced to live in close intimacy but never devolves into farce or slapstick. There’s no attempt here to get the audience to identify with the agony of Philippe’s condition by using the subjective techniques of something like The Diving Bell And The Butterfly – with the exception of the slightly trippy opening sequence showing the pair speeding dangerously through the streets of Paris at night the film’s shot in a perfectly straightforward TV movie style, which works just fine. There are some great jokes, a handful of well-drawn supporting characters and a number of choice moments involving Driss stepping over the line that will have you gasping and then chuckling with delight. I guess the film’s unique selling point is the fact that one of its lead characters is immobile from the neck down, and from the point of view of normalising people’s attitudes towards the disabled this can only be a good thing, but it seems a bit convenient that the man in question is both independently wealthy and unusually articulate – it would be interesting to see if a film this funny and watchable could be made if the man had lost the power of speech, for example.

Untouchable is released in the UK shortly, and if audiences can overcome their resistance to subtitles there’s no reason for it not to become a big hit here too. Or you could just wait for the inevitable English language remake.

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