Eye For Film >> Movies >> Untouchable (2011) Film Review
Reviewed by: Ali Hazzah
Untouchable (which previously roamed the festival circuit as Intouchables) is a well-executed comedy that took continental Europe by storm in late 2011, and is the second highest grossing movie in France, behind Dany Boon's Bienvenue Chez les Ch' tis.
It's also very funny - even if you must pretend to look the other way (with a smile, of course), when it comes to some of its more transgressive send ups of French social mores and assumptions.
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Co-directed and co-written by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, the film stars Omar Sy as a streetwise hustler named Driss, and veteran Dustin Hoffman look-alike, François Cluzet, as the aristocratic Philippe.
It is based on the unlikely, but uplifting, real-life story of a wealthy businessman, who hires Driss from the Parisian slums of the banlieu to be his personal caretaker following a horrible paragliding accident that left the descendant of Corsican nobility paralysed from the neck down.
Driss' hiring surprises Magalie (Audrey Fleurot, whom sharp-eyed viewers might recognise from her minor role in Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris), Philippe's secretary - a foxy but conservatively dressed, sexually distant red-head, whom Driss of course relentlessly pursues.
After all, he is fresh out of prison, and has all kinds of competition for the job from more qualified (white) candidates (doofuses all, naturally). Their self-important degrees in professional caregiving for the handicapped are no match against streetwise smarts, such as knowing about the delightfully restorative properties of good Moroccan hashish.
Driss inadvertently aces his job interview, despite the fact that he's only applying to qualify for social welfare payments.
This comedic setup underpins the entire movie.
So why, then, does the former director of a famous purveyor of expensive champagne hire this guy?
Mainly because Driss doesn't talk down to him, as an invalid, but instead, treats him as an ordinary person, straight up, with no special allowances.
Once hired, Driss turns out to be anything but what might have been expected. Driss does manage to enormously help Philippe, through humour, deal with the tragic loss of his wife due to cancer, and in return finds that he is better able to fulfill his family obligations. In effect, both men learn from each what they might not have learned by themselves. It's a bit fantaisiste, but it works.
At heart, Untouchable is really nothing more than an implausible but extremely humorous reworking of the familiar male bonding yarn, with a rich man/poor man spin.
And it truly is laugh-out-loud entertainment.
The film unabashedly treats serious subjects with a contagious sense of good-natured comedy and pathos, mainly thanks to the engaging presence and talent of Sy, whose easy rapport with the directors (they have previously worked on several films together) is evident throughout (the role, in fact, copped him a Cesar in 2011, over Jean Dujardin in The Artist), and whose megawatt smile certainly does light up the screen (but do try not to think of those "Happy Negro" films from Hollywood of yesteryear, or later Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock).
Yet for those who care about such things, it is also worth remembering that the real life character of Driss was not actually Senegalese, as in the film, but an Algerian immigrant, one named Abdel Yasmin Sellou, who, despite the millions raked in worldwide at the box office by this film, has apparently made not one red cent from Untouchable (we are told in a coda at the end of the film that he agreed, along with the actual mega rich Philippe, that the only financial condition they asked of the film's producers is that five per cent of any profits be donated to a charity for the handicapped).
Sellou, now in the poultry business in Algeria, must indeed be a modern-day saint, though he has written his own account of the events, the royalties for which he presumably pockets.
So the real question here is, why wasn't a French-Maghrebi actor chosen for the role?
Few critics in the States have raised the not-so-funny issue of anti-Arab artistic elision, with all the brouhaha and fuss raised there mainly aimed at the cringe-worthy magical Negro aspect of this film.
Personally, I don't buy into the theory, voiced in some quarters, that the, er, gobsmack of '62 (that is to say, the bloody Algerian revolution against the French colonial presence there) still stings too much, even after all these years, and thus the de-Arabising of the main character's ethnicity being part of some sort of evil recidivist payback.
I do think that, given the serious North African race riots in France over the past few years, that it was business, Sonny, just business. That, and probably nothing more than a desire by the directors to work with a popular artist with whom they have had good success in the past.
Just don't worry too much about the chickens.Reviewed on: 15 Aug 2012