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Untouchable

12 Nov

Director: Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano (2011)

untouchableIs there much comedy in the story of a man paralysed by a tragic paragliding accident? Yes. So much comedy. In one of the most hilariously touching films I’ve seen in years, Untouchable is one of those rare treats that surprises, moves and affects in every scene.
Opening with a high speed car chase through the streets of Paris, Driss (Omar Sy) is pulled over by the police. Turning to his companion Philippe (François Cluzet) beside him, he claims to be able to get them an escort. He then proceeds to use his friends paraplegia to get him out of a speeding fine, a ruse helped along as Philippe feigns a seizure to hurry the process along.

The audience is stunned into silence. For the briefest of moments. As the music kicks in the twosome veer off into the night and so begins a wonderful two-hour journey into the lives of two polar opposites living within and beyond their own diversities in a beautiful friendship.
Told through flashback, Untouchable follows Philippe, a rich quadriplegic, in high stunning Parisian mansion on his search for a live-in carer. Choosing the most disinterested, cocky and obnoxious candidate, only there to get a signature on his jobseekers benefit form, we immediately see a similar mischievous quality in Philippe and soon begin to see why these two men bond so quickly.

Touching on the obvious physical difficulties of caring for someone in such a way, from bathing and dressing to feeding and, of course, changing, this is a world away from his previous life for Driss. Philippe takes great pleasure in seeing Driss challenged but similarly enjoys watching his determination not to be deemed a failure – as usual. In a typical formula, both men have something to gain and to give – for Driss, he needs to learn to work and commit to something, for Philippe, he needs to learn to live for each moment. So far, so standard, but where Untouchable excels and expands this dichotomous relationship is in its unabashed treatment of the humour that inevitably arises from such intimate friendships.

A shameless flirt and talented artist, Driss is unleashed in the mansion, finally given the space he needs to create and a bathtub, a luxury he never had while sharing a small one-room flat with his extended family. Wickedly humorous but quietly resigned to his fate trapped in a wheelchair, Philippe masks his loneliness, keeping a secret epistolary romance with the help of his assistant, Magalie. When Driss finds out, there are some obvious skill shares this lothario can help out with… But rather than blazing in with the clichéd and forced montages of liberation, Untouchable focuses on the way the two men relax with one another as their working relationship develops, allowing their ways to seep into their own behaviours – as Driss displays his paintings and Philippe meets his lady penpal.

Music features heavily throughout the film, extending beyond merely being a soundtrack; Philippe’s love of classical music teaches Driss about the beauty of order and skill while Driss’ obsession with Boogie Wonderland and Earth Wind and Fire brings energy and movement into Philippe’s life, allowing him to live vicariously through Driss’ dancing – one of the best scenes in the film. Aside from the shaving scene but I will leave that for you to enjoy…

Completely life affirming in every way.

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Wadjda

21 Oct

Director: Haifaa Al Mansour (2012)

Battered Converse, scuffed denim underneath her abaya, scraggly hair and a cheeky glint in her eye, our first meeting with Wadjda, as she is sent out of class, sets the tone for the rebellion that prevails throughout this beautiful and heartwarming film. But rebellion, or perhaps self-belief, extends beyond the film to its very making. Directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, and reportedly the first film to have been filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is boundary and regime pushing to the very end.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a precocious little school girl, living with her mother in the Saudi capital of Riydah, living the usual life of school and playing with friends with one major exception – little girls in Saudi Arabia can’t ride bicycles. Al Mansoor transforms this seemingly simple concept of a little girl wanting a bike to race with her friend into a vehicle to illustrate the role of women in Saudi society and also the lengths women go to assert their own identities. A heavy load for a little girl but Wadjda is up to the challenge, taking her entrepreneurial spirit and determination to win a race to raise the money to buy herself a bike.

Only there aren’t many ways for young girls to earn money in Saudi Arabia. Still falling short from the bracelets Wadjda makes for her school friends and her cheeky bartering with friends to earn some extra riyals, her dream of the 800 riyal bike seems a distant prize. That is until she discovers her school’s religious group is holding a Koran reciting competition with a prize of 1000 riyals. While religion may be ingrained in the reason why she can’t ride a bike down her street like the boys, Wadjda is not deterred and commits herself to the task at hand. With the help of her handy PlayStation ‘Koran Made Easy’, of course.

Wadjda is a sentimental but by no means sugar-coated view of women in Saudi Arabia. With a predominately female cast, aside from brief appearances by Wadjda’s father and best friend Abdullah, the film has a distinctly female voice offering a truth rarely seen through the male gaze dominating Arab filmmaking. From the conservative school teacher to Wadjda’s beautiful but sad mother, struggling with the cruel reality that her husband must now look elsewhere for someone to provide the son she no longer can, Wadjda lifts the veil on the broad spectrum of women in Arabic society in a new and touching way.

Part of the London Film Festival’s ‘First Feature Competition’, Wadjda is a simple but invigorating insight into a world too often shrouded away, given fresh life and honesty by the enthusiasm of its female director and its little leading lady.

(Originally published on The London Word).

Live Flesh

19 Jun

Director: Pedro Almodovar (1997)
Almodovar will forever be the unshakable master of tales of love, romance and the dirt that lies beneath both these things. Live Flesh is no exception. Boasting a young and knee-quiveringly handsome Javier Bardem as a young policeman, David, Live Flesh tells the story of jealousy, revenge and the overwhelming power and necessity of sensuality in life that permeates through Almodovar’s world.

Brought into this world on the floor of a bus by his drug addled mother (Penelope Cruz), Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal) hasn’t had the easiest of lives. As a twenty year old virgin, Victor embraces the inevitable Oedipal complex the Fates promised him and finds himself in flagrante with a drug addled prostitute, Elena (Francesca Neri), fulfilling his dreams of sex but also bringing a presumption that this should be the start of something beautiful.

Appearing at Elena’s home, her feelings, or lack thereof, are made clear and she promptly tells him to skedaddle. But while she is high on crack, he is high on the memory of sweet toilet stall loving and refuses to take no for an answer. Hearing a scuffle, neighbours call the police, David and partner Sancho, who come to her rescue but not before a shot is fired, resulting in David paralysed and Victor in jail.

Two years later, David is a famous wheelchair basket ball player, married to Elena – now less junkie, more beautiful. Meanwhile Victor has made the most out of his incarceration, educating himself and beefing up. While he may now be a free man from the confines of the jail, he is still confined by the rage he feels seeing David with his love. Fuelled by his love and no doubt lack of sex, Victor begins his quest to regain his ownership of the woman he once rightfully paid for. Of course, Almodovar would never make it so simple. Throw in a heady mix of extra marital affairs, betrayal and paralysis and we are on the right track for yet another gripping, emotional thriller.

Live Flesh is a sexy and turbulent insight into human nature, playing the ones we love against the ones we desire in a world that has not always dealt us the fairest hands. Then again, perhaps the trials we are sent are the universes’ way of putting us back in our place. Provocative on all levels.