Untouchable | TakeOneCinema.net

Untouchable

UNTOUCHABLE has become something of a phenomenon – making a huge splash on the continent and doing decent business elsewhere off the back of that. As amiable as it can be, however, it’s rather hard to ignore the cliche and stereotype-ridden story, despite an engaging pair of lead performances.

François Cluzet is Philippe – a quadriplegic who goes through carers like hot suppers due to the difficulty of looking after him. A wealthy man paralysed in a paragliding accident, he hires the young Driss (Omar Sy) in an attempt to inject some vibrancy into his life. Driss is a poor young man, initially there to simply get a signature for his benefit paperwork, but after being hired by Philippe the two begin to strike up a bond.

It would be churlish to deny that the lead pair do a decent job, Omar Sy being particularly endearing as the vibrant, but initially misguided, Driss. In addition, Cluzet bounces off Sy very well, but beyond that there is little of note besides a handful of good laugh-out-loud moments.

“The script is peppered with dreadful cliches and a number of comic missteps.”

The script is peppered with dreadful cliches and a number of comic missteps. A scene where Driss dances to contemporary music as a counterpoint to Philippe’s classical is toe-curling. At once we have a dreadful stereotype (the young black man dancing to show he has ‘soul’, getting all the dull rich white folks to loosen up and join in) and a cringeworthy moment. Forcing Philippe to sit and watch this merriment around him seems like some sort of perverted inverse Ludovico technique, for both the audience and him. There are also a number of scenes played for laughs that seem incredibly misjudged. Driss violently intimidating a school child half his size? Hilarious. Scrambling the emergency services for kicks whilst smoking weed? Side-splitting. Omar Sy in a suit being told he looks like Barack Obama. Wait, what?

UNTOUCHABLE feels a lot like SCENT OF A WOMAN (itself a remake) with added racial stereotypes. The opening scene, where Driss recklessly drives a Maserati and attracts police attention, brings to mind a scene with a Ferrari from that 1992 film. The character dynamic also feels very familiar. The film may be in French, but what we have here is the classic (and done-to-death) Hollywood buddy movie, and not a particularly remarkable one at that. You can’t help but think UNTOUCHABLE would be getting a lot more continental flack if it was from the other side of the Atlantic.

“The film may be in French, but what we have here is the classic (and done-to-death) Hollywood buddy movie, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.”

The character of Driss flirts dangerously close to a hybrid of the “magical negro” character, that is rightfully so reviled now, and the “noble savage”. It just so happens he comes from a racially homogeneous ghetto rather than a remote geography. In Driss comes, waves his wand and everything magically works. The film hits upon one good concept – the role of carer requires more than pure mechanics – and does nothing with it apart from twee set pieces. Despite the potential undertones inherent with a French setting, the incredible lack of peril or clash in the film’s central relationship (even if it does have admirable chemistry) makes the film a well-intentioned but misguided mess of gooey positivity that strikes a grating symphony of false notes.

It’s also questionable that the film recasts Driss from Algerian to the slightly less politically charged Senegalese. The exact veracity of the tale – “Based on a true story” – is besides the point; UNTOUCHABLE is an asinine and cloying film, despite the warmth generated by Omar Sy. There is supposedly (and inevitably) an American remake on the way, and based on this evidence I won’t be touching it with a bargepole.

11 thoughts on “Untouchable”

  1. Well, I think that you were a bit soft on it, Jim – you’ve pulled your punches with such phrases as ‘an asinine and cloying film’, and so we’re left in doubt about your true feelings…  🙂

    After all, if the film had done a true Paddy Considine / Tyrannosaur and reversed the stereotype, so that Sy is in the chair, one could still somehow say that Clouzet dancing to the contemporary was racist by abrogating Sy’s stereotype.

    Have any one black character and any one white character, irrespective of how many others there are, and one can always point to what limits our notions of black or white people in that individual – but are films there to present every race, creed and orientation in its most glowing light by avoiding what may seem unnecessarily obvious? Do they necessarily have a moral purpose?

    And, being purist with violence, we would never have it in film at all, if – as asked – Sy threatening the boyfriend, if he doesn’t get croissants and other morning goods, in the context of what, out and out, is a comedy can’t be laughed. What scope for finding Travis Bickle ridiculous with his gun contraption, if we have to stop and ask moral permission to laugh?

    1. I don’t think the reverse would be perceived as racist, or it would at least have less grounds to be claimed as such. Even then, it would at least be less of a movie stereotype if nothing else.

      Moral permission is not the problem. The scene in question is played for laughs, despite there being no reason for this. That scene is simply a large, grown man intimidating an adolescent for no real end cause. It’s a minor point and not the only example of a misguided comic eye.And, of course, it is not the job of a film to present falsely favourable depictions of different races, but Sy’s character is no more truthful, or less of a lazy stereotype, than the modern art/opera/classical music loving Philippe is of upper-class Frenchmen. In some ways, I’m not claiming the film is ‘racist’ per se but simply that the characters are all lazy stereotypes – racial or narrative (or a bit of both). It even extends to the lesbian personal assistant. The characters here have no more depth or truth to them than the cutaway gags in Family Guy. There is no depth to any of them – at no point do we get behind the dewy, weepy eyes of any of them.The film is not uplifting, its dull and predictable. The characters, although funny in spurts, are trite and uninteresting.

      1. Thanks for that. Just on another point, first, is it legitimate to say that fidelity to a true story is not, in itself, a reason for what a film is or what happens in it and then, in the same breath, find some ‘Let’s not mention Algeria’ motive for changing the detail of that true story?

        As it happens, I think that there may be a more benign reason, which is that, according to Wikipedia®, ‘[h]is [Sy’s] father is Senegalese and his mother is from Mauritania’ – maybe no one, he included, thought that he would pass for Algerian, so why not substitute one for the other? I’m just guessing, but assuming ‘the slightly less politically charged Senegalese’ was the main or only reason may be reading more in than is there…

        Which is where we come back to the bakery business. My recollection is that Driss hesitates quite long about doing this, and that the way in which he goes about his task is uneasy, although, at this point in the film, he has reason ‘to get in with’ the household in this way, after the start that he has made.

        Paddy Considine’s old bastard of a use for Peter Mullen in a remake of My Name is Joe portrays him kicking his dog to death, and the worst that happens to the guy with the croissants is that he gets called out and ends up spending on pains au chocolat. Frankly, if he’s enough of a numpty to believe that there is any real threat, then he’d die on the spot if the said Mullen even looked at him!

        Yes, the means that Phillipe has and how he conducts himself by writing letters to a woman he should be shagging are a ludicrous send-up, but, for all that I care to know, the real guy is – and the French (allegedly) both love antiquated manners, but also anyone who can puncture them.

        I can’t agree, because I just don’t see it, about the dancing – God knows whether the prototype for Driss can dance (or does), but, if Sy can – as he can – then, hell, why not use it, and what point does anyone who can dance make, if they dance, except that they can dance, and, if they do not, that they are not dancing?

        As to saying anything, it’s ‘not that sort of film’, and the wrong sort of film for someone to watch if they cannot enjoy despite, not because of, emergency services being put out – as if they’re not all the time by hoax and nuisance calls – and the same quality of edginess as to whether to admire Driss, condemn him, or just take him provisionally somewhere in between. (With the Pacino, a maniac who wants to drive a car when he cannot see is no model of responsible roadsmanship.)

        It’s not, obviously, a towering genius of a film that one sees over and over, but that doesn’t, either, make it one with few worthwhile things beyond the male leads.

        1. Granted, there should be a ‘however’ in there really BUT the film gives a wide body swerve to any mildly controversial element or even having some sort of clash between our very different protagonists. The nationality switch, to me, is maybe just symptomatic of a bigger problem with the film. It doesn’t do anything interesting, at all, let alone risky.

          The scene with the boyfriend is simply a a grown man intimidating a younger child. That is all it is. The only humorous bit is when he asks what type of croissants to bring – a joke crowbarred in because otherwise that would have been a deeply unpleasant scene, rather than just questionable. He hesitates when talking to the daughter – he goes about his business thereafter without a care though.

          The dancing scene does *not* make a point, is what I’m saying – other than to demonstrate his ‘lust for life’ in a terribly cliched way. It’s no better than Chris Tucker high-kicking along to Michael Jackson in Rush Hour 2, or rolling out Asian characters to dispense wisdom, Irish people to dispense drunken wit, or anything of that ilk. If it was to simply demonstrate he can dance, just because Sy can himself, and have a mildly diverting set-piece around it then why have the lingering shots of the stuffy pensioners ‘relaxing’ and getting into it? It’s the old stereotype of the outsider making everyone’s lives better.

          We can pick apart any one little misstep or cliche, but it is the sheer volume of them in Untouchable that add up. Any one can be ignored, but when there are so many – with nothing, NOTHING to steer it into some narrative interest other than the ridiculous letters subplot – I just found myself screaming in my head “Right, I’ve had enough of this now”.

          Quite frankly, it was so insipidly gooey I felt like kicking a dog afterwards. But that says more about me than Untouchable, perhaps.

          1. To try to rake over the embers of this debate, I have made some comparisons between Rust and Bone and this film in my review of the former – on my blog now…

  2. The boyfriend/bakery malarky is all the more questionable because the boy’s terror is not of an adult, or even a tall muscular adult, it is the terror of a black immigrant – one of the faces he may only have seen in the footage of the Parisian riots. Sy – at first reluctantly, but only because he doesn’t want to be involved rather than any particular scruples – uses that fear to get his way. Not once, but numerous times. The staff can laugh along because, by this point, their priggishness had been neutered by Sy’s magical common touch.

    1. The last word, I feel, should really be left to our own Fabulous Baker Boys, @JimGR and @tobytram:disqus , for their Ballad on the Barking Out of the Boy of 15 / 16 (15 is the age of consent in France). (Terror, though, terror was not what I remember seeing.)

      That said, I cannot see The Boys’ negative comments on what is essentially not, it is sure, a remarkable film, but one which, nonetheless, portrays the origins of a friendship, and feel that I need to be so hard – meaningless as they may be – on their capers, and perhaps not even all the harder because of a misplaced dissatisfaction that the film (and nothing more serious) has been so successful.

      Philippe and Driss might wear a bit thin rather quickly, but I still might be tempted to hang out with them for a while until they did…

  3. I’ve read all the comments with interest.
    So thank you.
    I saw the movie and loved it.
    But the stereotypes did make me squirm a little; Driss not being able to distinguish between the products in the shower, not having heard of certain composers, the violent way both the schoolboy and the errantly-parked neighbour were dealt with, the introducing of Phillipe to cannabis etc. 
    The driving scene made me cringe because I am nervous around the subject of dangerous driving (although I think that may just be because I’m a nervous driver!). I physically shuddered when Driss was slammed against the car, but mainly because I have seen this happen in a million films before and it seldom ends with a laugh.
    And I wasn’t entirely comfortable that the object of Driss’s lust being an ‘untouchable’ (read ‘out of his league’) classy White woman. I felt a lot of the laughs around this were at Driss. Apart from the fact that he is stunningly beautiful, obviously bright and charismatic we were encouraged to adopt a “come on Driss! As if she would!” attitude to his come-ons (hopelessly bad though they were).
    Contrasted with this were the film’s portrayals of women of colour; downtrodden or prostitutes or…. no, wait, that was about it.

     One of the most disconcerting things that we as Black people are faced with in film are stereotypes. Though stereotypes do actually exist (of course) the frequency with which they turn up in films makes accusations of the laziness of filmaker’s seem somewhat justified. 

    Having said that, I did enjoy the film. The way the issues of disability were dealt with, the brutal honesty of some of the dialogue, the sheer fun and laughter and energy was hugely infectious. No one film can cover everything and tick all boxes, so this one scored pretty highly with me.
    But then, I do love that gooey, sentimental kind of thing….

    1. Totally forgot about the parking incident scene. This film seems to have some sort of mystical feel-goodness that just hasn’t clicked with me. Most folk I know who loved it don’t really disagree with anything I’ve said about it above, they normally note them but say they didn’t care about it. I’ll be interested to see how well the film persists in the collective consciousness.

      1. Oh, it’ll be forgotten along with those films ten years ago that were everyone’s favourites before ever we talked (more of less) of cinema having a feel-good factor (a phrase for originating which someone should be obliged to watch Untouchable every day until New Year’s Eve…

        If I had a brain, I would name the films that had such mass appeal, and where, similarly, many people just didn’t care about the things that made others howl. For example, who, other than to deny that he or she ever saw it or to make an obligatory bow in the direction of the shrine that is Titanic, would bring up the subject, unless forced to (my excuse!), of that film.

        From less far back, 2002, probably Resident Evil and Die another Day weren’t as big, but how much attention – whatever they got then – do they deserve now? But something that I’m really looking for from that year, but find in 1998, is You’ve Got Mail – who would even be ensuring that they had it in the latest format, let alone thinking about it…?

    2. What we do know about Driss is not only that it is his character to make light of many things (though he does come to care about Philipe), but also that he is newly released from prison – forgive me if I forget this, but I do not think that we know how long or for what for. Is it unreasonable, then, for him to make light of cannabis, or, maybe, to have had a violent past? Maybe the real Driss did / has, and he is a person, not a stereotype.

      The driving scene did not look dangerous to me – he seemed to be handling the car, and, for all that I know, maybe he was a caught get-away driver. Maybe echoes of Princess Diana make it seem more dangerous than it is… I’d certainly rather be driven by him than by Al Pacino’s character in Scent of a Woman, as mentioned by two of us!

      The film is just to be enjoyed, nothing more, nothing less, and, if it fails, just to be discarded, I would agree.

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