There’s a kind of formula cinema that tends to attract the eyes of awards committees as the year draws to its close. The formula will generally involve the following: opposites attracting or worlds colliding, the differences between the two expressed in appreciably simple terms, usually pop culture-related; hardships that are allowed to register, but in some dialled-down way a less cosily middlebrow film wouldn’t allow for; multiple montages, further smoothing everything down; a smattering of recognisable tourist landmarks, so nobody gets lost. Ideally, it would also involve a true story, so that those being grumpy about the movie can be accused of stomping all over the experiences of those involved – making the dissenting viewer the bad guy, not the filmmakers clumsily celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit.
Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s Untouchable ticks most of these boxes. Based on the true story of paraplegic Philippe Pozzo di Bergo, this comedy-drama centres on the relationship between Philippe (François Cluzet), a rich Parisian paralysed from the neck down, and Driss (Omar Sy), the son of African immigrants from the projects, whom Philippe hires as his PA. The two clash over music – Berlioz in the older man’s case, disco for Driss – but soon form a bond: Philippe opens his carer’s mind to a world of wealth and luxury, while Driss gives Philippe an earstud and a degree of excitement hitherto absent from his life.
Occasionally, the formula works. At its best, Untouchable is gently funny: Cluzet (Tell No One, Little White Lies) is a sly enough performer to sell you on most things, though the film has life made easy for itself by the fact Philippe can afford to skid around in Ferraris. Elsewhere, Nakache and Toledano have to hope audiences are having too good a time dancing in their seats to “Boogie Wonderland” not to notice, or to care, how thoroughly ungainly their film is on the issue of race. (Once the formula is in place, nothing else matters.)
Sy’s charisma gets the film some way, but Driss is conceived as an uneducated savage who chomps M&Ms in art galleries, is prepared to throttle anyone who crosses him, sexually harasses Philippe’s secretary, and helps perpetuate an art fraud – and we’re meant to respond favourably to all this, because he’s doing things namby-pamby, touchy-feely carers wouldn’t. The film has compassion mixed up with brute force; in doing so, it veers dangerously close to the suggestion the role of this black man was simply to lend his white charge some backbone.
The real story couldn’t have been this simple, this easy, this black-and-white – and it turns out it wasn’t: di Bergo’s carer Abdel Sellou was of Arab descent, further muddying the film’s already dubious racial politics. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter if this repackaging doesn’t export well: the story is now being sent down the Hollywood conveyor belt in a new, improved (now subtitle-free!) formula, with Colin Firth in the Cluzet role. As cinema, Untouchable is indistinguishable from baked beans in tomato-flavoured sauce: comfort food intended to warm you up, it may yet give more sensitive consumers a regrettable case of indigestion.
Untouchable opens in London today, and in cinemas nationwide from next Friday.