Reflections on "Untouchable" (2011)

Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

Starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy

In memory of my friend, Alfie

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

The opening scene encapsulates the film's dynamic and provides insight into the character and relationship of the principal characters, plus their interaction with society.

Two men are driving in an atmosphere of melancholy, even depression. Passenger Philippe is in low spirits and driver Driss is concerned as they drive aimlessly through the Parisian night, following the constraints of traffic and the highway code. They are dully going nowhere and this reflects Philippe's frame of mind and, as we shall discover, his physical limitations. Suddenly, Driss breaks free from the traffic and powers away, breaking speed limits and several other laws at the same time, but supplying a sense of exhilaration, defiance and a taste of life. Naturally, the police become involved very rapidly but Philippe (who is quadriplegic) and Driss act together to manipulate the figures of authority so they gain their sympathy and pity, thus not only avoiding punishment but gaining an escort to a nearby hospital in the process. Philippe and Driss take great satisfaction in this result as, together, they have managed to profit by Philippe's disabilities and limitations to outwit the system and society which have conspired to write him off due to his condition, while seizing a few moments’ escape from Philippe's highly restricted existence.

Philippe is a very wealthy quadriplegic who belongs to the economic and social elite. It appears that he was so accustomed to what he regarded as life-numbing security that he took risks to furnish thrills and excitement and so, as he went ever higher and faster, he eventually took a risk too far and lost feeling below the neck as a result. He also lost his beloved wife to illness. In such circumstances it would be easy to slip into negativity and depression but, recognising the essential value of life, Philippe has focused on cerebral or intellectual pursuits such as art and music in his physically diminished life. Surrounded by a helpful and devoted staff, he makes the best of things, though spiritually he may be doing less well as his somewhat restricted daily life appears rather clinical, uninspired and lacklustre.

In contrast, Driss and his family lead a somewhat crowded chaotic hand to mouth existence, and may be struggling both economically and emotionally. Driss is physical, spontaneous, open, friendly, shows common sense and has principles, though we discover he has a prison record (due, we imagine, to desperation to provide for his family). He displays a caring attitude toward his sister and his mother, and he is highly protective of his younger brother who is leaning toward joining a gang. He also displays a natural effusiveness and dynamism which, combined with his openness and frankness, could easily lead to conflict or discord.

When he presents himself for interview as Philippe's personal assistant, Driss is entirely open about the fact he is required to apply for a number of jobs in order to qualify for financial assistance from the state, and so all he needs from Philippe is a signature to indicate he has gone through the motions of interviewing him. Driss makes no attempt to ingratiate himself, shows no real consideration or understanding of Philippe’s situation and responds to questions without guile or hope of gaining the position, yet they engage in some banter and, despite being a less than obvious choice, Philippe offers Driss the job on a trial basis - exactly because Driss displayed spontaneity, frankness and a willingness to challenge the perceptions and attitudes with which Philippe is surrounded. In other words, he offered a spark of life and energy in what had become a dull and repetitive undertaking.

For Driss, this position offers stability, independence and security as well as a fruitful, insightful and highly amusing introduction to modern art, classical music and opera. Driss continues to share his incisive and challenging observations on Philippe’s cultural pursuits, offering down-to-earth alternatives to Philippe's abstract and artistic interpretations, and a mighty slice of amusement and energy in the process. He approaches his physical care of Philippe with the same openness, innocence and spontaneity, potentially causing Philippe considerable injury but at the same time injecting the process with life and energy, but also, most importantly, without pity. Driss treats Philippe as an equal - he does not affect compassion, tolerance or sympathy, and Philippe greatly appreciates this quality. He is treated like a man and consequently he finds Driss's company stimulating and enjoyable.

Their status of companionship evolves when Philippe struggles one night and is clearly pained both physically and spiritually. Driss responds instinctively, asking what he can do to help. The relationship they have built so far allows Philippe to confide he needs air, or simply to get out. Driss then seizes Philippe and takes him out in Paris in the middle of the night. They hold a relaxed and open conversation in which they share events of the past and emotional responses, a discussion which forms the basis of their future relationship. This is no longer an employer-employee relationship. Personal interest, sharing and emotional commitment raise their relationship to the status of friendship.

And so, they help one another. Philippe gains physically, spiritually and emotionally. Apart from movement, Philippe gains experience of different types of music, is immersed in humour-laden discussion of art and learns to assert himself as a father when he disciplines his haughty adopted daughter. But most importantly, he regains a sense of hope, purpose and appreciation which had been slipping away from his existence.

Driss experiments with modern art, is exposed to culture, learns some self-discipline and to conduct himself with greater finesse, while retaining common sense and principle. This is amusingly demonstrated in the contrasting ways in which he deals with drivers who have parked in the entrance to Philippe's driveway. More importantly, Driss derives a sense of purpose and self-respect from their association, and hones his quick wit and charm to reflect a more cultured and reflective approach or outlook.

However, family obligations and duties, readily acknowledged by Philippe, mean that eventually Driss and Philippe must part company. Driss has evolved and moves ahead with his life, applying for jobs with new-found confidence and poise. However, having developed a reinvigorated outlook on life, Philippe is dreadfully disappointed and misses the friendship and emotional engagement he has come to value so much. It is at this point that his friend returns briefly, but only to transport him, unknowingly, toward hope, positivity and the next emotional stage in his life, for which, in a sense, his friendship with Driss paved the way.

The film's huge surprise success is due in no short measure to the sharp script which balances sympathy, humour and emotional engagement, and the crisp, involving direction, both the responsibility of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. However, the natural, touching, amusing and thought-provoking performances by Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy transport the material to another plain.

Although the film touches briefly on themes such as integration and understanding of the handicapped, family, discipline, seizing the moment and savouring life, whatever it may bring, this is undoubtedly above all else an uplifting hymn to friendship and the mutual benefits emotional engagement can bring, even in the most surprising and doubtful of circumstances.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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