Review: Untouchable (Dir. Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, 2011)

In the same vein of adapted memoirs, The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar, 2004) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007), Untouchable (AKA The Intouchables) too portrays a male protagonist living with a severe disability. While the aforementioned films attempted to encapsulate the struggle of locked-in syndrome, and a fight to end a life with dignity, this light comedy-drama provides the affecting story of two men trying to re-start their lives in light of personal circumstance. It is a surprising movie with a simplistic narrative and two great lead performances.

Widower, Philippe played by Dustin Hoffman-döppelganger François Cluzet (Little White Lies) lives an aristocratic lifestyle surrounded by staff on the outskirts of cosmopolitan Paris. Left quadriplegic after a paragliding accident he is without a male carer and has to interview for help several times a year, as no employee stays longer than a matter of weeks. Enter Senegalese-born ex-convict Driss (Omar Sy, Micmacs) from the projects; the only applicant in jeans, trainers and without experience or formal qualifications. The city’s Benefit Agency has organised a series of interviews as a formality; if Driss is refused three positions then, and only then, will they consider his claim and he can be supported by the state. He is large, loud and brash, in complete contrast to the staid Philippe, not least in class, race and musical taste.

When Driss returns to the rich man’s home the following day after their first meeting, he finds the necessary paperwork signed and the offer of a place to live and gainful employment; all he has to do is choose which and take the chance to make something of his rudimentary and, seemingly, directionless lifestyle. While Driss has to make these kind of decisions, in contrast, Philippe has not missed out on any aspect of his life. He has had no previous pecuniary restrictions but now his body and physical limitations have left him a prisoner, unable to do very little for himself. His most useful and powerful attribute is his mind and his articulation of language and expertise in the cultural arts has cemented a long-distance relationship with a woman in Brittany, albeit through the penmanship of another.

Driss, fabulously, dismisses aspects of Philippe’s disability which can be interpreted as both ignorance and innocence. He does not view the world as others do and often “forgets” his employer/friend is without the use of limbs and functions many take for granted. His pragmatism not only educates him but softens Philippe whose insistence on “no pity” is completely embraced by the younger man and it is this which charms most around him.

Chance is a recurring theme throughout this remarkable film, specifically, grabbing any and all that present themselves; this film depicts the opportunity to take a walk in a stranger’s shoes and touch their life, however briefly, is a rewarding endeavour. That said, this film never feels manipulative or overtly sentimental, it is a poignant reflection on living to the fullest, beyond mere existence and is portrayed through two extraordinary performances by the two leading actors, who manage to shatter any stereotype pertaining to class and race.

Cluzet is, as ever, outstanding as Philippe; the French veteran has, over the years, consistently proven his acting mettle. It is, however, relative newcomer Omar Sy (a 12-year-long career in comparison to his co-star’s 30 plus) who shines. His luminous grin lights up the screen and, along with his honesty, comedic timing, dreadful singing ability and love of 70s disco, is infectious. I defy anybody not to leave the cinema without a smile upon their face – in addition to damp cheeks – and a warm feeling in their heart; life affirmed, however briefly, from this inspiring, feel-good, crowd pleaser.

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