Sunday, 30 September 2012

Untouchable 2011

I had no idea about the hype around Untouchable (original title: Intouchables) when I decided to see it. The fact that it was a French film and Francois Cluzet plays the main protagonist was incentive enough, but after watching it, I have read various articles describing it as one of the biggest worldwide hits from France.

The story goes thus: Philippe is a rich quadriplegic, looking for a full-time carer, and along comes Driss, an ex-convict from the ghettos, who is at the interview with the aim to get rejected, so he can show just cause to claim his welfare benefits. Driss's irreverent manner and disregard for social norms win him a probation period as Phillippe's carer, which Philippe and his staff actually have to convince Driss to try out, on the basis of the extravagant perks. What develops is an unlikely friendship between two men who are as different from each other, in every way, as can be. Philippe is able to bring purpose to Driss's life and in turn Driss gives him the gift of laughter. The story is based on the true-life relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou.

This is possibly one of the funniest films I have seen on the subject of disability. As bizarre as that sounds, Untouchable constantly provides uninhibited laughter, but there is not a moment where you feel that Philippe's condition is being made fun of, for cheap thrills. Even when Driss puts Philippe through some awful situations, somehow the disabled character does not come across as helpless. All the way through, Driss treats him like an equal, like someone for whom concessions don't need to be made. Even when Philippe dwells on the tragedies in his life, Driss dissipates the gloom with an idea that challenges the norms of how one should behave in that situation.

Unlike A Sea Inside (2004), which evokes compassion, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), which inspires hope, Untouchable brings mirth, without apology. Instead of reflecting on the heroism in a paralysed person's life, it focuses on friendship and crossing barriers set by society. 2004's Inside I'm Dancing came close to this sort of story-telling, but it played on the pity/heroism attitudes too, which it is sometimes criticised for.

This is not to say all disability stories are the same and should be dealt with in one particular manner. Most of the films I have mentioned were, in fact, based on true stories and each patient had their own circumstances. But in Philippe's case, the focus was on the fun times he had, and still has, with his carer. The film is unashamedly funny all the way through, and memory of the scenes where Philippe exposes Driss to modern art and classical music, or when Driss shaves Philippe's facial hair, will always make me giggle. If the real Philippe and Abdel are anything like the characters on screen, then their relationship is utterly enviable.

Francois Cluzet is an extremely dignified actor, a class act. As Philippe, he has to rely only on his facial expressions and his voice to convey all emotions. It helps, of course, that he has such a warm face and is instantly likeable. Omar Sy, who plays Driss, is a total revelation to me. His entire body is active and alive, his face is absolutely fluid and his performance is completely unhindered by any rules. He is not acting, he just is. And, I must say, besides being a refreshing actor, he really is easy on the eye! All other actors, including Anne Le Ny and Audrey Fleurot, just add to the mix and make it work.

Untouchable is a particularly beautiful story about friendship and living life, and without ever getting preachy for even a moment, it has all the compassion and hope and belief that a film about disability is 'expected' to have. An excellent, excellent film, that is very highly recommended.

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