French cinema’s 2013 Oscar hopeful Untouchable (Intouchables) arrives in UK cinemas having already scooped £360m global box office takings as well as awards from both sides of the Atlantic and a US remake already locked in by the Weinsteins. It’s hard not to have elevated expectations especially after the success of The Artist. Untouchable also currently sits 75th in the IMDB Top 250 right below The Treasure of the Sierra and above Chinatown – surely 87,000 ‘critics’ can’t be wrong can they?
Untouchable is based on the memoirs of extremely rich fiftyish Parisian widower Philippe Pozzo di Borgo (François Cluzet) whose penchant for risky extreme sports led to a terrible paragliding accident that left him paralysed from the neck down.
Looking to hire a live-in carer, Philippe and his aide interview a succession of lifeless, unassured applicants but it’s cocksure Senegalese Driss (Omar Sy) an ex-con from the Parisian projects who piques Philippe’s interest – imagine petulant and arrogant footballer Mario Balotelli crossed with the swagger and street charm of Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) from Trading Places.
Having turned up just to appease the benefit system, Driss performs his usual ‘Drissengaged’, ‘Drissenfranchised and ‘Drissrespectful’ routine that normally guarantees rejection, but he is shell-shocked when Philippe offers him a month-long trial to prove he can earn his way. It seems Philippe still likes taking risks and sees Driss as an avenue out of his depressed, adrennaline starved existence.
With his mother exiling him and no other place to go, Driss accepts the challenge. It's not long before Philippe takes in the joys of marijuana, speeding tickets and the music of Earth, Wind and Fire whilst Driss learns all about Bach, Vivaldi, extortionate art and the power of love letters. Driss even recognises the classical music... from TV adverts. Their relationship transforms into one of the most unexpected friendships that changed the lives of both men forever.
Like Driving Miss Daisy, The King’s Speech, Trading Places and any other culture clash buddy movie for that matter, their success rests on the chemistry of the two leads. François Cluzet is one of France’s most respected actors and probably best known for playing harassed paediatrician Alexandre Beck in Tell No One, the Hitchcock style action thriller for which he won the Cesar (French Oscar) for Best Actor. Omar Sy did grow up in the working class suburbs of Paris and has already worked with directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. In February, he won the Cesar Award for Best Actor for the role of Driss and actually defeated Jean Dujardin, who was nominated for The Artist.
Untouchable has not escaped critiscim. Accused of blatant commercialism and pandering to mass appeal, several reviews have also zoned in on the racial stereotyping with one American reviewer going as far as to say Omar is depicted as nothing more than a ‘Magical Negro’. Yes, it is commercial and a bit cheesy in parts but Eric and Olivier are confessed fans of British comedy and simply doffing their berets to the likes of Ricky Gervais, Sasha Baron Coen and Monty Python, who, as we know, all love to upset pretty much everyone.
But rather than being an offensive stock stereotype, I think the directors wanted Driss to represent a refreshing portrayal of a young man from the projects who could so easily have gone down the same route as Vincent Cassel's Vinz in La Haine (1995), a Jew from the Paris suburbs filled with rage and hellbent on violence in order to earn respect. Driss wants to earn the respect of both Philippe and his own family back in the banlieus by proving he can successfully earn a living without crime and without losing the core of who he is.
Whatever you take away from this film, it will be a hardened viewer to not at least feel a lump of emotion in the throat during the films finale especially with Ludovico Einaudi's emotive score pulling at your heart strings.