Untouchable: France's unconventional Oscar hopeful
- 28 September 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
The unconventional comedy Untouchable, about a quadriplegic millionaire and his immigrant carer, is on course to be one of the biggest French cinema hits of all time and may represent France at next year's Oscars.
"From the people that brought you The Artist," cries the poster for the French comedy Untouchable.
The tagline is a bold and obvious statement of the film's intent to recreate the critical success of the winner of 2012's best picture Oscar. In financial terms, though, Untouchable has already surpassed it.
Released nationwide on Friday following a week in London cinemas, the comedy charts the relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic who has been crippled in a paragliding accident and the young, black ex-convict he hires as his latest carer.
Not your run-of-the-mill laugh-filled romp, it has nevertheless taken an incredible $364 million (£225 million) worldwide. The Artist, in contrast, earned a relatively meagre $133m (£82m).
However, both films share more than a few things in common other than the obvious French connection.
First of all, neither was a particularly easy sell to potential investors - one of whom asked the film-makers if the main character "could walk a little at the end".
Co-director Eric Toledano says: "Even with friends at dinner, when they asked what the subject was and we'd try to pitch it, you would see their faces drop.
"I said, 'Let's stop the pitching'."
Instead, he and co-director Olivier Nakache relied on the fact that they already had three relatively successful films under their belt.
So they decided to let the tale - based on the true story of French aristocrat Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou - speak for itself.
"We thought the story had all the ingredients that we loved in cinema," says Nakache. "We wanted to make a realistic comedy with a real deep subject.
"Watching Abdel carry Philippe out of his car was a powerful image. How these men connected was through humour."
Toledano continues: "And not just humour but a special humour, a humour without any limit, a humour which put them outside of convention.
"One is black, one is white; he is rich, he is poor and they can say anything."
The pair cite British films like Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and The Full Monty as examples of what they hope Untouchable will achieve, having more to say on a social level than simply making people laugh.
So far the gamble has paid off, to Toledano's delight.
"It has been a big, big surprise, especially in France where people were sending us texts saying, 'It's impossible to see your movie, every theatre is full'."
He adds: "The movie has been born under a good star but we don't know how and why, maybe because it speaks to people and touches people," says Toledano.
"Also, especially in France, we wondered if it would work because of the bad economic situation in Europe. But it seems people need to laugh."
With the might of The Weinstein Company, which orchestrated The Artist's successful awards campaign, the film has been selected to represent France as a potential nominee for best foreign language film at next year's Academy Awards.
"We are so proud," says Toledano. "Representing France is always an honour and we are only the fifth comedy film in Oscar history to go forward for a nomination."
"I think there's no question that it's going to be an Oscar favourite," Harvey Weinstein told the BBC. "It's such a moving story, it's funny and charming, it's everything I like in a movie."
It was Weinstein who did the seemingly impossible and made a silent French film the firm favourite at last year's awards.
So much so, in fact, that when the film was called out as the winner, there was almost a sense of anti-climax.
"I've always said that it's just about getting people to see your movie," says the US producer. "It's as simple as that and every time I say it, people think there's a magic formula involved."
Undoubtedly, The Artist's success has opened doors for a film like Untouchable. Yet even Toledano and Nakache were surprised at how Michel Hazanavicius's black-and-white silent wowed the world.
"When Michel told us the story, we said 'Are you sure?'" recalls Nakache.
"We were neighbours in the editing rooms and we would have coffee together and we could never hear any dialogue coming through the wall, only music. We were like, 'What kind of movie are you making?'"
Weinstein's support for Untouchable was never more vocal than when the film was seized upon by French right-wing politician Jean-Marie le Pen, who accused it of being an example of France's move toward ethnic diversity.
In the film, wealthy Philippe's carer Driss, played by French comedy actor Omar Sy, is a Senegalese immigrant. The real life Abdel Sellou is Algerian.
"France is like this handicapped person stuck in this wheelchair," Le Pen told a French TV network. "It would be a disaster if France would find itself in the same situation as this poor handicapped person."
A furious Weinstein called Le Pen's attack "repulsive," saying it represented "a bigoted world view".
"He has a right to his opinion but it's dangerous," says Toledano. "Len Pen always does the same thing, he did a similar thing during the World Cup in 1998.
"He said there were many black and Arab players in the team and this was not the French team. He's inviting himself into a debate and we didn't respond, because we don't want him involved with our movie.
"I'm not a politician, I'm just a writer and a director. But I think that when you have some success, like the Americans say, you end up swimming with the sharks."
Weinstein, whose other successes include Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love, already has plans to adapt Untouchable for an English-speaking audience.
Let the Right One In, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the forthcoming Pusher - based on the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of Drive - are among other foreign-language hits to have been similarly adapted.
Britain's Colin Firth is apparently tipped to taken on the role of Philippe, played in Untouchable by Francois Cluzet.
"We think he is a wonderful actor and we loved him in The King's Speech," says Toledano. "If the remake has to be made, than better with him.
"We trust Harvey but for our part, we made the movie that we liked and we have to leave this adventure now and think about a new one."
Untouchable is out in London and is released nationwide on Friday.