Monday, September 17, 2012

'Untouchable' (2011) directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

"From the people that brought you 'The Artist'" seems pretty vague I have to say.
Despite this being billed as an 'advance preview', it seems as if much of the world has already seen 'Untouchable'. Premiering in France in November 2011, it quickly became a huge hit and after a spring worldwide release it’s become the highest-grossing French language film of all time.  The film finally comes to the United Kingdom on September 21st.  So with the rest of world having passed their verdict of a big thumbs up what is there left to say?

'Untouchables' tells the story of the relationship between Phillipe (Francois Cluzet), a paraplegic aristocrat and Driss (Omar Sy), a young man from the Paris banlieues with a criminal record and an uncertain future.  It's a classic mismatch of personalities, with Phillipe's slightly staid love of opera and fine art clashing with Driss' more freewheeling passions for rhythm, women and marijuana.  It's not exactly a spoiler to say that over the course of the film both men learn something from each other's very different lives and gain a new outlook on life while becoming unlikely friends.  So far so predictable.

Phillipe (Francois Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy)
On paper, 'Untouchable' feels like a safe little odd couple-style comedy, but is uplifted by two fine performances from the leads, together with some charismatic and effective turns from the supporting cast.

Phillipe begins the story numb in literally every sense of the word.  During the initial interviews of his prospective carers/assistants he seems more like a piece of furniture than a man.  He sits in the background, dimly lit, emotionless and resigned as a parade of facile and shallow overeducated men parade in front of him.  It's only when Driss enters the room, shamelessly flirts with his assistant and explains that he's just there to get a benefit form signed that he begins to reanimate. 

One of the main reasons this film elevates itself above others of its ilk is the constant notion of Phillipe trying to maintain his dignity.  Sometimes it seems that’s all he feels he's got, and although he’s in a pretty miserable situation he never lapses into self-pity.  Indeed, it’s this dislike of pity in himself and others that attracts him to Driss in the first place.  Phillipe is unquestionably a positive portrayal of disability, a character that rightly rejects pity at every turn.  What good does someone clucking their tongue and feeling sorry do for someone in his situation anyway?  Nonetheless, we do see the vulnerable side of Phillipe on numerous occasions.  Physically we see him hyperventilating and experiencing excruciating phantom pains at night, and psychologically we see his fear of being judged as a cripple by those he cares about.  We never get to see Phillipe prior to his accident, but it’s easy to picture the calmly self confident and romantic man he was once was, someone who could effortlessly charm the pants off whatever woman he chose.  He’s still got this charm, but his sense of pride has taken a big hit to the point where he’s too scared to even meet the woman he’s been romancing lest she turn her nose up at his disability. 

 Cluzet’s physical performance is quite astonishing.  You might think that it’d be an easy job for an actor to play someone who can’t move below the neck, but it must be incredibly difficult to hold your body so loosely and carelessly.  There are moments when Cluzet begins to fall to the floor, and there isn’t even a flicker of self preservation or reaction from him.  Care has been taken to accentuate the physical toll that this accident has had on him.  His arms and legs are pale, and below the neck his skin looks like sallow gooseflesh.  A subtle detail that I appreciated was that he takes care to cover up a tracheotomy scar on his neck, only exposing it when he and Driss are in informal surroundings.

See, right there at the bottom of his neck.  It's a nice detail.
Omar Sy as Driss seems to emanate charisma - everyone in the film finds it difficult to dislike him, even when they seem to suspect they should.  Driss carries himself with a loose physicality, splaying lazily over beds, or sitting deeply back in chairs.  It’s this unselfconscious lack of poise that makes him seem so initially out of place in Phillipe’s stuffy and over-decorated mansion.  There is another side to Driss though, one that the well-to-do house staff he socialises with don’t tend to see – while he may be relaxed and friendly there, he seems to walk with his guard up when he ventures back into the banlieues.  He pops his hood up and hunches his shoulders, projecting a “do not fuck with me” aura.  Driss consciously plays with the bourgeois character’s perceptions and stereotypes of what he is supposed to be.  Throughout the film, Driss uses this perceived persona as a tool; whether he’s terrifying people who’ve parked blocking the entrance to the house, or putting the fear of God into the annoying boyfriend of Phillipe’s daughter.

It’s damn funny watching these polite, middle class twits jump out of their skins in fear when approached by what seems like the embodiment of all their paranoid, Angry Black Man nightmares.  We can laugh because as an audience we know the real Driss, we know that it’s all an act.  But the fear he exploits is emblematic of a wider problem in society; fear of the immigrant, fear of poverty and ultimately a bourgeois fear of black men.  Phillipe is terrified that people will judge him because of his wheelchair.  But throughout the film he takes Driss to places where he is immediately judged on the colour of his skin.  It’s a deft bit of characterisation and writing that although we never explicitly see anyone discriminating against Driss, we see a lot of snooty looks, and angry whispers thrown in his direction.

 In this respect the film treats race very well, but there is a little cringing to be had.  There is an excruciating scene where Driss’ love of Kool and Gang, and Earth Wind and Fire against Phillipe’s passion for classical music are contrasted against one another.  Phillipe instructs an orchestra to play different pieces, to very little reaction from Driss.  After Phillipe is done, Driss puts on his funk music, and dances around the room – getting all the old fusty dusty men and women to join him in boogieing down.  It’s pretty cringeworthy, feeling like something out of a bad Steve Martin movie.

This is.. a low point.
But this is an aberration, a rare mis-step.  A little more problematic is the overall thrust of the narrative.  By the end of the film, Driss is well developed but the conclusion of his character arc is left to the audiences imagination.  He has conflicts outside of the central relationship to Phillipe, and although sketched pretty thinly, we want to see how they're resolved.   For example, a plot strand involving Driss’ brother’s entanglement with some gangster types never really seems to conclude properly.  The film ends with Phillipe having faced up to his fears of being judged, regaining his confidence and the green shoots of his emotional recovery poking through the soil.  Driss, on the other hand strolls off out of frame, his work apparently done.  This ending makes Driss ultimately feel a little like an elaborate plot device, a character whose sole purpose is the rehabilitation of Phillipe.  It’s frustrating really, Omar Sy imbues Driss with so much personality and life that we want a definite happy ending for him, and we don’t quite get one.

In terms of direction it's pretty conventional, although there are some nice flourishes in more action packed scenes.  The film opens with Driss and Phillipe speeding through the streets, and the camera seems to float behind them, winding in and out of traffic.  In a later paragliding scene the cameras are affixed in front of actors, allowing us to experience the shift in perceptions they're experiencing as well as the sheer joy of flight and movement.  In a film where a character cannot move, the pleasure we get from the motion of the camera allows us to understand exactly what Phillipe has lost.

There is also an well defined contrast between Phillipe's opulent mansion and the crowded council flat Driss shares with the many members of his family.  When in Phillipe's house, we get long tracked shots that allow us to soak up the architecture, the art on the walls and the antique furniture.  Meanwhile, the scenes that take place in the banlieue are choppily edited, confusing us with the multitude of characters and how they move between the claustrophobic spaces of the flat.  There is particular contrast drawn between the two bathrooms that Driss uses in the film.  We first see him battling for privacy in his mother's bathtub, being bothered by his younger brothers and sisters and the water going cold when someone brushes their teeth.  When he moves into Phillipe's house, the bathroom is portrayed as pornographic in its luxury.  All of this highlights the central culture clash that drives the film.

'Untouchable' is an easy film to enjoy, and Omar Sy in particular seems able to win a crowd over instantly - everyone was laughing along in the cinema.  But maybe it's a little too populist: at no point is there any genuine sense of danger or a chance that things are going to go seriously wrong for these characters.  It's a bit of a fuzzy blanket in this regard, a definite Prozac film.  Nonetheless, there is a certain something running through this film's veins that appeals to a universal humanity and it's easy to see why international audiences have embraced it.  I'm sure British audiences will too.

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