Untouchable hits the UK after having extraordinary success across the rest of the globe. It’s now by far the highest-grossing French-language movie ever, taking an extraordinary $365 million around the world (although only $8 million of that is from the US, which still remains particularly resistant to foreign-language fare). It’s particularly impressive as not only does the world generally ignore the output of the French film industry, but it’s about a subject that many would usually see as something to shy away from – as it’s about a man who’s completely paralysed below the neck.
Philippe (a wonderful performance from Francois Cluzet) has no movement or feeling below his fourth vertebrae, but he’s very rich, so with massages, physiotherapy and medication, he can expect to live to 70. Despite his wealth, it’s not a desperately fulfilling existence, so when he needs a new assistant/carer, he looks for something a bit different. Fresh from prison, Driss (Omar Sy) applies for the job only so he can get the signature and polite refusal that will allow him to qualify for benefits, but is shocked when he gets hired, particularly as he has no real experience with disabled people, and comes from a very different world to the privileged, grandiose surroundings Philippe lives in.
While Driss is less than impressed with some of his new duties – from having to put on Philippe’s support stockings to dealing with his charge’s poop – the two men soon begin to bond. Driss’ lack of pretension, direct manner and refusal to treat Philippe either with cotton wool or as a rich man he should doff his cap to, helps bring a freshness, humour and vitality to Philippe’s life. However, while Driss helps give Philippe a new lease on life – as well as a real friend – issues in Driss’ family threaten to take him away.
One of the reasons modern French films often get short shrift is because (while there are exceptions) they have a tendency to treat emotion as an intellectual exercise. Untouchable meanwhile has few such pretensions and instead reaches out to the audience’s heartstrings and tugs on them unabashedly. It should be noted that it doesn’t do this by pitying Philippe but by trying to understand him and building empathy for the joy of friendship between the two men.
Untouchable is charming, inspiring, sweet, occasionally exciting and most of all funny. The movie finds huge amounts of humour in its stories and has numerous scenes and situations that will get the audience laughing, and best of all it’s never at the expense of the characters. We laugh with them, not at them. Indeed much of it has an oddly British sense of humour, and you could easily have imagined this coming out of the Working Title factory of British comedy.
At the beginning of this week Untouchable was chosen as France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Although some wish that honour went to Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone, the fact is Untouchable has a good chance of winning, as it has just the right measure of heart to tick the Academy voter’s fancy. It’s undoubtedly the sort of film that many will automatically shy away from watching – it’s in French and about a disabled man – but in this case they’d really be missing out. Hopefully the combination of the wave of success the movie’s already had, as well as a new awareness of disability following the Paralympics, will ensure Untouchable gets the audience it deserves.
Overall Verdict: Moving, entertaining and most of all very funny, this is one of those movies that’s never dull, will leave you beaming and with your heart lifted.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac