Cornerhouse LiveWire Young Film Critic James Martin reviews Untouchable
My first feeling when sitting down in Screen 1 and waiting for the film to start was suspicion. By the time Untouchable was released nationwide, it had already been greeted with polarized critical reviews, a massive intake at the European box-office and a place in the IMDb Top 100. A comedy drama based on the true story of a young Senegalese man who has grown up on the wrong side of town and finally been kicked out of the family home, finding his way into the house of a rich paraplegic as his carer and both learning and teaching some ‘valuable life lessons’ (as put by one highly ironic review) sounded very sickly and formulaic, the kind of Hollywood-inspired trash that does away with all depth and truth to bring out contrived emotional payoffs, offset with crude gags and preposterous happy endings. In short, I suppose, I wasn’t really expecting to like it.
Was I correct in my assumptions? Well, let’s start with the true story bit. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this movie has significantly altered the events on which it is based; there is no way on earth that a) Driss, the young Senegalese immigrant (played magnificently by Omar Sy), got the job and adapted to it with such consummate ease, and b) the relationship between Driss and Philippe, the wealthy paraplegic played by François Cluzet, developed nearly so smoothly as it does in the film. It would be a small miracle if it did.
What of the plot itself? Well, put it this way: I promise you that you have seen, read and heard this story before. Many, many times. The film does contain clichés, and even stereotypes: no marks for guessing which of these two characters revels in Bach, Mozart and the opera, and which would much prefer dancing along to ELO!
From what I have written so far, it must sound like I hated Untouchable. But we haven’t yet considered the most important question: does any of the above actually matter? And the answer is: no, not particularly. For the main thing to consider here isn’t that we have seen much of this material before, but that we have rarely seen it done better. Yes, the film is sentimental and predictable; but it is never saccharine, and even in its plot trajectory, it does not give us unbelievable or contrived climaxes (I was impressed by how Driss’ storyline with his own family is brought to a close). The film may bend the truth significantly, but not so much as to alienate us from the movie’s emotional centre or insult our intelligence.
We must accept Untouchable for what it presents itself as: a great feel-good film, free from pretension, which I’m sure in years to come will be remembered as a classic of the genre. It doesn’t plunge too deeply into realist depths beyond the film’s surface – but then again, nor should it, considering the goals it wants to achieve.
I will say this as well: it takes a great deal of skill to pull off a movie like this. There is a fine line between a film being feel-good and toe-curling, and I maintain that, when it comes to tears, the most difficult challenge is to make a cinema audience cry laughing (and let me say now that my sides ached at times for sheer force of laughter). Untouchable may inspire tears for all kinds of reasons, but it does so without cheating or descending into sugary slush. It is a blockbuster, crafted for the entertainment of all, and it is one of few modern films of its kind to succeed with flying colours. I came out of Screen 1 grinning like a Cheshire cat, having rarely been so happy to be consciously manipulated by a movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hope that it will continue its success during its UK release.