Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Untouchable

Reviews - Untouchable


Reviewed By John Stakes

Last Sunday’s 2011 French comedy-drama "Untouchable" was based on the true-life story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker Abdel Sellou whose unusual friendship had been originally filmed as a documentary under the title "A la Vie, A La Mort". A brief clip of the two men was shown at Untouchable’s concluding credits. But the large Keswick audience really wanted to know whether they could find as much to enjoy in this dramatic reconstruction as their French counterparts whose enthusiasm had elevated this Cesar winning film into becoming the second highest grossing film in French cinema history and taking over £300M worldwide.

The situation of master/mistress and servant has often provided the framework for an examination of human relationships and when that relationship is characterised by racial differences a deeper poignancy often emerges ("Driving Miss Daisy" for example). It is comparatively rare for other distinguishing characteristics to be added to this mix and chronic disability would not be one of them. "Untouchable" not only included all these elements but threw gentle self-deprecating comedy in for good measure and, through its humour, invited its audience to view the physically challenged with fresh eyes; but only in passing because at its heart this film was not about disability, race, colour, ethnicity or any other social or political issue. It was everything about one’s sense of personal value and our aptitude and willingness to engage with each other.

From recollection the last occasion club members were called upon to consider disability as film material was the 2004 Belgian/French oddity "Aalta" which dwelt solely on the visually comic potential in presenting two Caucasian middle-aged wheel-chair bound Belgian misfits as they set off on a journey to Helsinki to protest about something. As a consequence that film teetered throughout on the brink of tastelessness. No such problem afflicted "Untouchable".

Co-directors (and joint screenwriters) Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano structured their film as a flashback following an opening scene in which home carer Driss (Omar Sy) is at the wheel of the sleek black Maserati of rich but quadriplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet – the French dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman!), and driving at high speed through the streets of Paris with the police in hot pursuit. They manage to persuade the police when stopped that they were engaged in a hospital emergency dash. Philippe feigns a stroke and they are escorted to the hospital.

We then rewind to the point when Driss was first interviewed and appointed Philippe’s carer, and follow their unfolding friendship. Despite being at opposite ends of the social divide the two men connect through marginalisation: drawn to each other by a shared sense of ostracism and rejection. Philippe is impressed by Driss’s demeanour in treating him as an equal human being and not as an object of pity He warms to Driss and is not deterred by his criminal record for robbery.

Both men are enriched by their growing relationship. Driss is introduced to the arts and learns to paint. He teaches Philippe to bring some order to his life and to discipline the behaviour of his spoilt daughter Elisa. Driss also learns that Philippe has a pen-friend Eleonore but is inhibited by his condition from attempting personal contact. Driss’s home circumstances intervene in the form of his wayward cousin who seeks refuge in Philippe’s mansion. Philippe realises that he needs to release Driss from his care of him to give him space to resolve these difficulties.

Without Driss Philippe’s life deteriorates. Eventually his assistant Yvonne persuades Driss to return and the story catches up with its opening. Driss is then instrumental in bringing Eleonore and Philippe together and by so doing facilitates his withdrawal from front-line involvement in Philippe’s life.

The film’s affectionate, witty and infectious humour delivered with consummate craft by its two male leads elevated this Gallic offering far higher than its feel-good status. Yes it could be accused of pressing all the right buttons but manipulation was restrained and no mean skill is needed if those buttons are to be correctly assembled, pressed in the right order, at the proper pace and at the right time. The obvious cliché of the bored rich man being educated as to real life skills by a (black) man well versed in the school of hard knocks was fully exploited, but in life affirming fashion. The sentimentality, though deliberate, was used sparingly, and never adulterated the genuine warmth of the men’s growing relationship.

Whilst Francois Cluzet impressed as Philippe in the range of emotions conveyed almost exclusively through his largely static frame and face, it was the sheer screen presence of Omar Sy as the young Senegalese misfit which sealed the film’s endearing quality and rewarded Sy with his richly deserved Cesar for best actor (the first by any French African). A bundle of streetwise bubbling seductive energy, his performance not only enabled any disbelief to be suitably suspended, but ensured that the confected edifice never crumbled. He electrified all his scenes but never at the expense of any of the other actors. Both cool and commanding: magnificent.

No surprise then that Keswick voted this the most popular film of the season.

The French have been so taken with "Untouchable" that it was declared the best cultural event in France in 2011, and in September 2012 was selected as their entry in the Best Film in a foreign language category for the 85th Academy Awards. It will be hard to beat despite some misplaced reaction from a few hardened US critics.

Next Sunday brings with it the last film of the current season which is the second in the "power of women" season (the first being "The Source") and titled "Where Do We Go Now?" The answer is obvious……to see it at the Alhambra! Whilst the subject matter may be thought uncomfortable dealing as it does with the loss of Christian and Muslim men in conflict with each other, it postulates a solution by the women taking control of their destinies by a variety of increasingly inventive schemes. Sounds a lot of fun!

A happy Christmas to everyone including hobbits.

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