Schmaltzy French-language flick Untouchable beats Hollywood at its own game by injecting soul into proceedings.
The worldwide, critical and commercial success of fluffy, French, odd-couple flick Untouchable (AKA Les Intouchables) has left some a little baffled.
With a box-office gross of nearly $300million, it has become the most profitable non-English language film of all time, surpassing Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanimation Spirited Away, which previously held the title. While having a somewhat modest release in England and America, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s film is still putting Anglophone bums on seats and is now a serious contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 Oscars.
What’s so confusing about its rampant success is that it hasn’t followed the path that breakthrough, subtitle-laden flicks tend to tread. In the past few years, foreign-language films have found audiences in an otherwise hostile Western market by providing something novel and culturally unique. Before this there was Jean Pierre-Jeunet’s Amélie, up to now the most successful French film of all time, which charmed audiences with its quirky Parisian styling and art-house sensibility. As for Spirited Away, it gave much of the West its first glimpse into the rich and imaginative world of anime. Untouchable, on the other hand, feels like the sort of film we’ve seen a million times before.
Loosely based on a true story, the set up goes that Driss (Omar Sy), a Franco-Senegalese wrong-un from the other side of the tracks, goes to a job interview for the position of carer for a wealthy, middle-aged quadriplegic, Philippe (François Cluzet). Painfully underqualified for the role, he unashamedly explains that he came only to fulfil the necessary requirements in order to receive his job-seeker’s allowance. Seeing something in the young man which is apparently lacking in the other patronising interviewees, he hires him on the spot amid many a raised-eyebrow from his stuffy friends and family. Despite their superficial differences, they soon become BFFs in a rather saccharine tale of overcoming one’s limitations - whether they be physical, emotional or monetary.
Driss is the lustful, swaggering black male, while Philippe is the uptight Caucasian whose disability seems to be almost an extension of his incurable bourgeois starchiness. Philippe introduces Driss to fine art, Driss introduces Philippe to weed etc, etc, and after a neat two hours we are provided with a suitably soppy ending complete with slow-motion walk-away.
Add in an American football scholarship and lose the wheelchair and you essentially have The Blind Side, the criminally offensive, Oscar-winning film of 2009 about a black inner-city teen taken under the wing of a well-to-do white family. The only difference between them is that beyond the selfsame corniness and cultural stereotyping, Untouchable is incredibly enjoyable and even affecting.
The strokes may be as broad as a power-lifter’s shoulders but between them is a refreshing amount of detail. Nakache and Toledano manage to serve up some genuinely funny moments while refusing to shy away from the realities of quadriplegia. Whether in a scene of knockabout comedy or more gentle moments of Driss tending to an agonised Phillippe the two leads shine. Sy brings an infectious personality to the role, which wins over the audience as Driss does Phillippe, while Cluzet’s portrayal combines a palpable sense of physical emasculation with indomitable dignity.
Certainly, the schmaltz can be hard to bear at times, and the more you read up on the real story upon which this is based, the more the cheap contrivances become blatantly clear. However, Untouchable still comes out on top by beating Oscar-gold filmmakers at their own game. It may not titillate the English-speaking audience with anything particularly novel, but it does bring heart and soul to an otherwise charmless format. That, at least, is something we haven’t seen for quite some time and the secret of Untouchable’s unprecedented success.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.