Black and white and fun all over

Directors Toledano and Nakache speak to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about how people act in extreme situations.

Eric Toledano (left) and Olivier Nakache 370 (photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Eric Toledano (left) and Olivier Nakache 370
(photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
When you’ve just released a new movie, hyperbole is very much de rigueur, but it is difficult to find an epithet that could exaggerate the quality and downright delightful entertainment value of Untouchable.
The French film, directed by Jewish directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, has done incredibly well since its release last November, and was seen by 19 million cinema-goers in France alone. This Sunday it opened the Jerusalem section of the French Film Festival, with the screening attended by Toledano and Nakache. They were clearly happy to be here.
“We have been to screenings of the film in Rome, Madrid and New York, which was all wonderful, but to come with the film to Jerusalem is the most special thing,” declares 40-year-old Toledano in good English peppered with Hebrew. “It is a special feeling. We have family here and we have been here so many times on holidays, and I studied for one year at the university in Jerusalem when I was young. It is very special to be here. We feel at home.”
Home is something of a sub-theme in Untouchable, which tells the story of a quadriplegic millionaire who is looking for a live-in caregiver. Philippe, a previously highly active rich aristocrat who has been confined to a wheelchair due to a paragliding accident, ends up hiring Driss, a young guy from the projects recently released from prison. Driss did not really want the job but is by wowed by the palatial surroundings and decides to give it a go and get away from his adopted mother’s cramped apartment.
The main characters’ contrasting socioeconomic and cultural worlds intermittently clash, interweave and complement each other as the Philippe, played by Francois Cluzet, and Driss (Omar Sy) get to know, and gradually like, each other. Naturally, there are plenty of ups and downs along the way, but every twist and turn is handled with the utmost delicacy as the viewer is taken for a rollercoaster ride of emotion.
Toledano says there is another leading role in the film, played by an invisible but highly audible element.
“Music is central to the way the movie was built and developed,” he says. “Music is the third leading character and it is an integral factor in the way the story is told.”
It is also a vehicle for portraying the gulf that exists between the worlds of Philippe and Driss, but that gap, too, is eventually snugly bridged when a concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, performed for Philippe’s personal pleasure, is followed by an impromptu down-and-dirty boogie to a disco number by 1970s group Earth, Wind and Fire.
If you take the basic components of Untouchable and lay them out for sober scrutiny you are liable to expect to have to endure a couple of hours of unadulterated kitsch. There are definitive sob stories in there, dark moments, a classic privileged white man meets disadvantaged and socially-challenged son of African immigrants dynamic, death, and an impossible adolescent to cope with.
“We [Toledano and Nakache] spoke so much about how to make this story exist without the problem of the frontier between what is heavy and what is light. We had three chances to do that – when we wrote it, when we shot it and when we edited it. I think if the Americans made something like this, it might come out like a soap opera. We had to be very careful.”
“Humor saved this story, and saved these two people too,” notes 38-year-old Nakache. “It could have been cheesy, but the jokes change the whole tone of the movie.”
The directors got the balance just right at all three stages, and there is nothing standard about Untouchable either. In addition to the deftly paced momentum of the film, Toledano and Nakache basically blaze their way through all manner of potential socio-political minefields.
Dark humor abounds and there is a generous dosage of entirely non- PC observations. Philippe’s physical disabilities are the butt of some of Driss’s street-level observations, and sexual innuendo of the most puerile kind occasionally crops up. Surely, the directors had to be wary of offending social sensibilities, particularly of handicapped people.
“We decided to take risks and break all the rules. We got the best reaction from handicapped people. They said they were really grateful for the film. And how many letters we received and emails and comments from physically disabled people telling us how much they enjoyed the film,” says Toledano. “They said it was great that we had laughed with them and not about them.”
THE IDEA for Untouchable came from a documentary Nakache and Toledano saw about seven years ago, called La vie, a la mort, about the highly unlikely encounter between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who was left a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident, and Abdel, a young dude from the projects hired to take care of him. The directors were completely taken with the story but it took a while before they felt ready to tackle it.
“Straightaway we thought we wanted to make a movie based on this, but we were young and not mature enough to do something with it back then, but the documentary stayed with us,” observes Nakache. They had just finished shooting the 2005 drama-comedy Je prefere qu’on reste amis (Just Friends) but came back to the idea after completing work on their 2009 comedy Tellement Proches (So Close).
The directors and Cluzet and Sy – who won the 2012 César Award for Best Actor – certainly did their homework before shooting started.
“Before we worked on the screenplay, we wanted to meet Philippe Pozzo di Borgo in Morocco, where he has remarried,” says Toledano. The encounter heightened the directors’ desire to press on with the project, and Cluzet and Sy also went to meet the real life characters.
“Francois Cluzet is a very intense actor,” Toledano continues. “He spent three days with Philippe, observing him. When he came to the film set he was ready.”
In fact, Cluzet turns in a remarkable performance in Untouchable, and manages to convey a wide spectrum of emotions just with his head. Sy’s character, on the other hand, is the epitome of in-your-face energy.
“The development of the relationship between the two characters is very important,” says Toledano. “And we had Omar to begin with. We had worked with him before [on 2006 comedy Nos Jours Heureux] and we wanted to make this with him.”
Despite the resounding success of Untouchable, Toledano quickly scotches the idea of him and Nakache offering more of the same.
“You know, I see all these sequels coming out of the United States – 5 this and 3 that – but we will not do an Untouchable 2. We decided we will never do a prequel or a sequel in our life, even if there is a lot of money in that. We just want original movies.”