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Non-Review Review: Untouchable (Intouchables)

Untouchable is that rare gem. It’s a sweet, life-affirming story that never overplays its hand. It never devolves into cheap melodrama, as stories like this tend to. The story of two people from two very different walks of life coming together and learning from one another is a well-travelled plot-device, but there’s a strong heart at the centre of Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano’s comedy drama. It has soul, it has rhythm, and it refuses to wallow in tragedy or angst as it follows the unlikely relationship between a wealthy paraplegic and a street-smart welfare recipient.

Joy ride!

To be fair, any suggestion that the film would take itself too seriously or dwell too heavily on cheap emotional manipulation are dispelled within the first few minutes, as we join Driss taking a joyride in Philippe’s fancy sports car. Philippe is unable to move or feel from the neck down, and Driss is the young man he hired as his caretaker. However, that relationship isn’t immediately obvious, as Driss speeds through late-night Paris. When he gets pulled over by the police, Philippe fakes a spasm to get the driver off the hook, even fooling the police into giving them an escort to the hospital. Once they’ve shaken their escort, Driss and Philippe speed off into the night, rocking to the beats of September, singing gloriously off-key to an appealing credits sequence.

That short sequence perfectly establishes the mood of the film. Although disabled, Philippe never seems to lament his status. He’s never explicitly mournful about the loss of his mobility. His family are disturbed to find out that he’s hired a convicted criminal to be his caretaker. “These street kids have no pity,”a relative solemnly advises him. But Philippe doesn’t want pity. He’s had enough of that. He wants a friend who hasn’t been specifically trained and groomed to see him as a subject or specimen. He wants somebody who will put him through his paces, and hold him to account.

A close shave?

There are several obvious points where the script could veer off into heightened melodrama, possibly leading to endless montages of characters looking forlorn, as misunderstandings drive our leads apart. A lesser film would indulge such urges, playing to the typical formula for these kinds of films. On his first visit to Philippe’s house, Driss steals an object of sentimental value. Philippe mentions it once, and wants it returned. Driss can’t find it. This would be fodder for an emotionally exploitational confrontation in any other film. Instead, the movie doesn’t use it for such an obvious purpose. (Ultimately, the object symbolises their friendship, rather than dismantling it.)

François Cluzet and Omar Sy play almost perfectly off one another, possessing a fluid and natural comedic timing. It’s easy enough to believe that the pair could become fast friends, despite their differences and their reasons to be sceptical of one another. Cluzet plays Philippe with a quiet tenderness that allows the audience to view him as a character rather than a plot device. Cluzet plays Philippe as a man who has his own issues beyond life confined to a wheelchair, and one who internalises his pain and insecurities. It’s an approach to the character which feels tasteful and well-observed, and it never seems like the audience is being manipulated by Philippe’s condition.

He’s certainly got drive…

Omar Sy makes Driss street-smart and a little self-centred, but without seeming predatory. There’s a sense that Driss knows how to take care of himself, and he never seems like a character who needs Philippe’s assistance or money. He never seems too idealised or especially selfless. Instead, he’s written as a human being who struck up a friendship across social class. It’s an old tale, but Sy plays it remarkably well, refusing to reduce Driss to a one-note martyr. Driss is flawed throughout the film, just as Philippe is, but the script allows them to play off one another’s strengths in a way that they work as a duo.

Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano’s script is sharp, providing a lot for their two leads to build on, but their direction is really the cornerstone of the film. They refuse to dwell on moments, or to linger too long on particular shots. There’s a sense of constant movement, which is what there should be. For Philippe, Driss introduces vitality into his life. For Driss, Phillipe affords him the opportunity to develop. The pair provide momentum to move each other forward, and there’s a kinetic energy to the movie that mirrors that.

He’s certainly got a winning touch…

Ludovico Einaudi provides an effective emotional score, but Nakache and Toledano do well to set the film to a funky seventies soul beat.Again, it plays into the idea of movement, which is so important during the film – the idea that Philippe’s life doesn’t stop just because he can’t move anything below his neck. There’s a vitality to the movie, as established in that opening sequence, and Mathieu Vadepied’s cinematography ensures that France itself – from Paris to Dunkirk – looks a beautiful as ever.

If there is a flaw with Untouchable, it’s a result of that movement and vitality. Things move so quickly that many of the smaller character beats don’t pack as much punch as they should, especially involving supporting characters like Driss’ family or Philippe’s daughter. Still, the dynamic between the two leads is strong enough to counter that, and the brisk pace is worth the shedding of potentially excess baggage. It just seems weird that the elements are set up in the background and are dealt with as easily as they appear. Although I suppose that’s a result of the movie’s charming reluctance to emotionally exploit its stars or subjects.

Dance fever…

Untouchable is a class act. It’s charming, funny, well-observed and occasionally affectingly honest. Against all odds, Untouchable might be the most touching film of the year.

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