Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was paralysed from the neck down in a paragliding accident in 1993. Needing a personal carer, he took on Abdel Yasmin Sellou, an Algerian career criminal who had only gone for the interview as a condition for claiming benefit.
Untouchable (cert. 15, French with English subtitles) tells that story in a beautiful and funny film that is France’s submission for next year’s foreign language Oscar®. François Cluzet plays Philippe, and Omar Sy his carer, now named Driss and from Senegal rather than Algeria (to reflect the background of the actor chosen).
It was good casting – both men were nominated for a best actor César, and Sy won, also beating Jean Dujardin who already had an Oscar for The Artist – which did win best picture César. Sy was born in Trappes, a Paris satellite town, where his father was a factory worker and his mother a cleaner – as is Driss’s mother in the film.
Unimpressed by his present of a Kinder egg – a Fabergé egg Driss has lifted during the interview – she’s unwilling to have him influence his siblings and throws him out of their cramped apartment in the Paris projects.
Philippe is rich enough to maintain a plush suite of apartments in the city, and pay several staff to look after his needs, some so basic that they are not best discussed in conversation over breakfast. Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) and Marcelle (Clotilde Mollet) manage the house while secretary Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) becomes the focus of Driss’s flirting, sometimes teasing him in turn.
Philippe’s only functioning erogenous zones are his ears, but it is Driss’s talent for enabling Philippe to experience different thrills – the film begins with a police chase round the Périphérique – that complements the main reason why Philippe takes and keeps him on. He has no pity.
They abandon Philippe’s practical van, and the nominal independence of getting into it by himself in his wheelchair, for Driss to manhandle Philippe into the Maserati that’s been under wraps since the accident. Driss does know someone who can also offer a souped-up wheelchair.
Philippe in turn introduces Driss to les beaux arts with mixed results. Driss turns to painting in his room, but cannot contain his laughter at the opera when a man sings dressed as a tree (Papageno as a bird, supposedly). The subtext is a contrast between two Frances, of disparities not just of wealth but of culture.
The contrast extends to language; Philippe has “an epistolary relationship” with a woman in northern France, Eléonore (Dorothée Brière Méritte). They exchange poetry, but once Driss understands “epistolary” he sets about changing it to something less distant.
The cinematography is superb, especially in a sunrise sequence where they fly to revisit the site of Philippe’s accident. Tandem paragliding offers another thrill – for Driss as well.
For the closing scenes, they travel to Cabourg on the northern coast. Omar Sy says he already knew the resort – it was his first sight of the sea on a trip from his school.
For those looking for symbolism beyond the story, it’s another reminder of the divisions between rich France, represented by aristo Philippe, and poor France, represented by second generation immigrants. It drew Jean Marie Le Pen to reject this idea of a future France as “an invalid in a wheelchair relying on help from the young in the suburbs and immigration in general”.
That in turn drew American distributor Harvey Weinstein to say “it’s important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas,” adding, with an eye to the box office, “That’s why I’m proud to bring the film to American audiences”. It is the second highest grossing film in France, after Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis.
Away from controversy, shots through the windows of the Grand Hotel of Cabourg give a fitting finale to the aim of writers and directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache to bring us laughter and emotion. They also bring us superb acting, and even if Sy won the César, Cluzet proves the adage about film acting – it’s all in the eyes.