Recommendation: don’t touch this film with a barge pole.
Warning: This review includes spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, and for some inexplicable reason want to, DON’T read what follows.
In times of capitalist financial crisis there’s always a surplus of so-called ‘feel good movies’ and this one falls into that category. Hollywood produced these by the shedful during the post-Great Crash in the 1930s. Then the poor dreamt of becoming stars of the stage or screen and we have as a legacy films such as 42nd Street (1933) or the Gold Diggers series, (1933, 1935). Although the stories in these films were silly and slight they did provide some memorable songs, dance routines and the masterful, long tracking sequence in 42nd Street which has rarely been surpassed and is a master-class in film making.
If dreams on the stage weren’t enough some even became gangsters, thieves and killers, as was depicted in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film of the eponymous heroes Bonnie and Clyde.
On the screen some found fame and fortune, some found fulfilment, some found death, others didn’t. In reality most people paying to see their dreams played out were only taken out of poverty by the outbreak of World War II – a bit like out of the frying pan and into the fire.
In the post-Second World War crises we are treated to patronising, condescending and shallow depictions of people overcoming adversity due to some inspiring individual who was able to impart the impression that all problems could be overcome by the application of hard work and the Protestant ethic.
The favoured vehicle for this (in Hollywood) was a high school in a poor and deprived inner city district where a charismatic teacher would come from outside and transform the situation in the same way that Christ turned water into wine. The school room allowed for the racial tension, that can exist in such a hostile environment, to be resolved in an amicable manner due to the catalyst of the outsider. They might stop fighting each other but they never decided to get together and fight against the system that had caused the problems in the first place. That would be a step too far.
There have been a few films every decade since the 50s, one of the last Hollywood examples being Dangerous Minds (1995), starring Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-Marine (isn’t that ridiculous?). There was also an earlier, local grown version of To Sir, with Love (1969), which also played the racial card.
In the 21st century we have moved out of the classroom but the vital characteristics of the poor being ‘educated’, ‘given a second chance’, ‘being allowed to develop their true capabilities’ are still with us. However, in Untouchable (2012) escape comes thanks to the condescending, patronising and philanthropic millionaire.
Now, I can accept that quadriplegics can get angry, I would if I were in that situation. But at least he has the safety net of his money and seems to spend most of his time interviewing candidates for a carer to replace the one that had only lasted a matter of days.
Come the wise-cracking Eddie Murphy/Richard Prior lookalike/soundalike from the banlieue. He only attends the interview process (how did he get past the initial selection procedure?) to get a signature for the dole so that he can prove he’s looking for work. In the process he steals a Fabergé egg (why items of such sentimental value – we learn later – apart from financial value are left out in a semi-public place was beyond me). To illustrate how stupid the working class are this is later referred to as a ‘Kinder’ egg, the ubiquitous chocolate and toy combination that has come to dominate the continent.
Despite his lack of interest in the job, lack of any experience and lack of any social skills out of his own peer group he is given the job as carer because ‘he doesn’t have any pity’ for the millionaire.
This lack of pity is admirably demonstrated when he ‘discovers’, for the first time it seems, that a quadriplegic has no sensation of pain in his legs. The ‘carer’ accidentally touches the bare leg of his client with a hot tea-pot and is surprised there is no reaction. So surprised indeed that he then proceeds to pour the boiling liquid over the legs of the patient. I don’t know what was worse in this scene, the fact that he did it, the fact that the millionaire was totally oblivious to what was happening or the reaction of one of the other employees when she saw what was happening. Here, I assume, we are supposed to realise that the poor are so ignorant that they have no concept of paralysis.
We are given a depiction of his poverty by the sharing of the bathroom and the lack of privacy in the flat in the high-rise block in the Berlioz banlieue (it actually exists to the north of Paris). So in the mansion he has to be provided with a bathroom the size of the whole of his family’s flat. What does he do there but perform to stereotype, put on headphones and sing loudly (and badly) to the music from the ‘hood’, ignoring the intercom that he is supposed to be monitoring.
Here I found myself asking a more general question about black comedy. In many depictions on the screen when black actors are funny their voices go into an extreme falsetto. This was the case with Eddie Murphy and in an even more extreme case with Richard Prior – whose falsetto was so infectious that Gene Wilder caught the disease and eventually made both of them annoying and impossible to watch. Even Lenny Henry does this. I was listening to an interview with him, on the radio, a week or so ago. He speaks normally but when he wants to say something funny up his voice goes a number of octaves. Why? I don’t understand.
But our tough, disenchanted and demoralised young man is not devoid of humanity. He eventually carries out acts of ‘kindness’ for the millionaire. The rich man obviously knew that there was humanity underneath the hard exterior. The carer watches, agonised, as his aunt works in a glass walled office as a night cleaner. He feels for her, but not enough to give her any of the money he’s been earning as a carer. (At the beginning the answer of one of the applicants for the job to the question why he wanted the post was the money, so we are to assume that the eventual successful carer was not on the minimum wage – but none of that gets back to the banlieue.)
The scene in the mountains is bounding on the surreal. Would a para-glider instructor really take on a novice who was screaming and reacting aggressively against taking part in the flight without the ability, and the permission, to pull a strap that would send the miscreant plummeting to the ground thousands of feet below? I don’t think so.
Towards the end he leaves the employ of the rich man to sort out the trouble his kin has with some nasty gangster types. Then we see our ‘hero’ talking to a thug in a big motor and, presumably, sorting out the matter. Are we supposed to believe that? At the beginning of the film he’s doing what he has to in order to get his dole and at the end he’s able to just talk to the hard men to get his wayward young relative off the hook. French gangsters must be pussy cats.
He returns for one act of kindness and gets the millionaire married off. He now owns a company – so say the words on the screen before the final credits. Everyone is happy! Not only has his humanity been revealed he now adopts the bourgeois lifestyle to escape from his poverty-stricken and deprived past.
This is the official French nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards next March. With all the publicity the producers had bought (surely not all the reviewers are that crass? – although I think I might know the answer to that question before even asking it) pre-release there is a strong likelihood of success. Having, not yet, been able to see all the possible films in that category it would be a tragedy if Untouchable was called up on any stage to receive any award.
Based on a true story? A feel good movie? Pass the sick bag.
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