Inspired by the true story of the friendship between a paraplegic millionaire (played by François Cluzet) and his ex-con care giver (played by Omar Sy), Untouchable has become the second-highest-grossing film in France (behind Welcome To The Sticks) and continues to set records at box offices around the world (over $360 million and counting).
Now set to charm and amuse cinema-goers in the UK, the film also marks a triumph against the odds for its co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. "It was a very difficult film to make," Nakache recalls. "Every movie is difficult but this one especially so because we wanted to make a comedy about disability."
Ironically, Untouchable's strength proved an early weakness as financiers distanced themselves from it, even suggesting at one point that it may be easier to fund if the central character was able to get out of his wheelchair. But Nakache and Toledano had one thing in their favour; the backing of the men whose real-life story made the film possible.
Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was confined to a wheelchair following a paragliding accident in 1993. Abdel Yasmin Sellou, meanwhile, was a career criminal from Algeria who had immigrated to France before applying for the job of Pozzo di Borgo's carer, solely so that he could continue claiming income support. But the millionaire saw something in him and hired him, a decision he now credits with saving his life.
Previous attempts to turn this story into a film had been resisted by Pozzo di Borgo, but that changed when he met the filmmakers at his home in Morocco. "He said, 'OK, I'm going to trust you because you're going to make a comedy,'" says Nakache. "And he followed that up by saying, 'I want people to laugh, not cry about my situation.'"
The directors returned to Paris to work on the script, mindful of Pozzo di Borgo's wishes and the feedback they had received about other disability-themed movies.
"When we spoke with wheelchair-bound people, it was always the same problem – the relationships are not true because of the compassion you have," continues Nakache. "The crazy part of this story is they have no compassion for each other. They both see themselves as disabled, Philippe physically and Abdel from a socioeconomic point of view."
For the purposes of Untouchable, Nakache and Toledano changed Sellou's name to Driss and made him Senegal-born, thereby playing to the strengths and real-life background of actor Omar Sy, who had grown up in a housing project in a Parisian suburb. But otherwise they only rarely deviated from the truth of Philippe and Abdel's story.
"Almost everything is true," insists Nakache. "The sharing of the joint happened, the car chase happened, the love story is true. Some of the comedy [such as a hilarious shaving sequence] was invented for the purposes of the screenplay."
Did Pozzo di Borgo or Sellou mind? "His [Philippe's] reaction was a very special moment for us because after the screening around his pool in Morocco, he turned his wheelchair and we saw tears on his cheek. He said to us, 'I would stand up and clap my hands.' Likewise, with Abdel, who said afterwards, 'I discovered that I am black!' They are very proud of the movie and are totally with us."
Since then, Untouchable's success has been unstoppable. US President Barack Obama has even requested to see it in The White House, Madonna put on a special screening for friends, and Nakache and Toledano have received over 3000 thank-you letters.
"We have received a lot of reaction from people in wheelchairs about the film and how it tackles their frustrations, and they are very happy with the movie because we try to talk about the situation with reality. Eric and I are very mad about keeping things real ... we want to speak the truth."
With such widespread acclaim ringing in their ears, is it safe to assume that Hollywood now beckons for the pair, particularly as an English language remake of Untouchable is in the works with Colin Firth attached as Philippe? Not so fast, insists Nakache.
"We're very lucky in France in that we have many opportunities and we love French actors. We are also very free creatively and we can work without conditions. So, even if we love America and American actors, I'm not sure that by going there we'd have the same freedoms.
"If anything, we would prefer to make a film in England."
And besides, Olivier is rightly proud of what French cinema has recently achieved and its place in the grand scheme of movie-making.
"I think we are fighting against the Hollywood system, which is more about superheroes and sequels – you have Twilight 1, 2, 3 and 4 and American Pie 1, 2, 3 and 4. I think French and European cinema is looking more into finding the true essence of cinema, which is finding good, original stories and trying to make them resonate around the world.
"If a silent movie like The Artist can win Oscars and be well received, and a film like ours – a comedy about disability involving a paraplegic and a guy from the projects – can become so popular, it's a good thing for cinema. But I think you need to be crazy, too, and not be safe. If you want to be safe, go and work in a bank!"
Untouchable opens in cinemas today.
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