How did a quadriplegic French aristocrat and his Arabic ex-con carer become unlikely friends, then a box-office sensation? Meet the real life stars of ‘Untouchable’.
The second thing you notice about Philippe Pozzo di Borgo is his smile – it is engaging and generous. The first is his wheelchair. The 61-year-old French aristocrat and former director of the Pommery champagne house, has been in one since a paragliding accident left him a quadriplegic in 1993.
His has a wing mirror, a computer control panel that can do everything from open windows to operate his phone, and it is, he says, the fastest in the world, capable of 9mph. Abdel Sellou, his “guardian devil” of 10 years, arranged for it to be souped up so that they could race in it, with him on the back.
This is one of many amusing episodes that feature in Untouchable, a film about their unlikely friendship. Another concerns a favourite game of theirs: Abdel would speed through Paris in Philippe’s Rolls-Royce, until the police caught them. Abdel would convince the police that the reason they were speeding was that Philippe was having a seizure. Philippe would play along. The police would then escort them to the nearest hospital.
Their friendship was unlikely because Philippe, who is the second son of a French duke, was born into a life of great wealth and privilege. Abdel was a career criminal from Algeria who had immigrated to France and had only applied for the job of Philippe’s carer so that he could keep claiming his income support. He was, according to Philippe, a short man with a square face who was “intolerable, vain and arrogant”. But, as Philippe explains to me as we sit in his beautiful modernist villa in Essaouira, Morocco – “at the end of the world” – he spotted something in Abdel that others could not see. His sweet craziness. “He didn’t feel sorry for me – he was irreverent, cheeky and had an outrageous sense of humour. I suddenly found I was enjoying life again, feeling like I didn’t know what was coming next.
“Nothing stopped this guy. I knew he wouldn’t flinch and could take the initiative.” He had interviewed about 90 people and knew as soon as he met Abdel that: “This is the guy I need. I don’t give a damn that he is out of jail. I needed him. And he became a friend afterwards.” As well as sharing a sense of humour, they were both on the margins of society – a disabled man and a criminal. That, he thinks, explains why they came to depend on each other, enrich each other’s lives and bridge the race and class divide.
Philippe, who speaks fluent English, is profound on the subject of pity.
“He treated me like I neededed to be treated in the tough times ahead, partly because of my condition but also because my wife was dying of cancer [she died three years after his accident]. I needed to be back on track. Pity is the last thing you need. Pity is hopeless. Pity is what someone gives you because he is afraid to take care of you. I didn’t need that. But compassion I don’t need also. It comes from Latin and means ‘suffering with’. I don’t want you to be suffering with me. I need consolation, which in Latin means keeping me as a whole person, respecting me as I am.”
The film, which is about to be released in Britain, has been breaking box-office records in France and Germany, and one of the reasons seems to be that it gives the audience permission to laugh with, not at, disabled people, and see their lives as they have never seen them before. “This film says it is OK to laugh sometimes. Life in a wheelchair can be funny as well as sad. I think many people find disability frightening, but we want people to relax around us, because we feel much better if you take it easy. And this guy Abdel has such humour. Never nasty, just funny. I like laughing.”
They’re quite a double act. When Philippe calls Abdel for me, translating the French via speakerphone, we find he is not in Algeria, as we expected him to be, but in Marseille, “up to no good, I should imagine”. Their affection for one another is immediately apparent. Something else I notice is that Abdel has a very infectious laugh. I ask him what his childhood was like, growing up as one of nine. “It was hell, but I loved it. I was the devil.” In what way? “I had no code for what was right and wrong. I did what I wanted, when I wanted.” How would his life have been different if he hadn’t met Philippe? “I would probably be dead, or in prison.” What was he in jail for before? “I was doing black-market work but I was so good at my work, to thank me, they let me have a rest.” In the film they changed the Algerian Abdel to a black immigrant from Senegal, mainly because they wanted to cast the French comic actor Omar Sy.
What does Abdel think of the man who plays him in the film? “I’m a small ugly guy, he’s a beautiful athlete. They found the opposite of me.” Abdel was, to put it mildly, a womaniser, another theme explored in the film. But he has now settled down and is married with three children in Algeria, where he runs a poultry farm. Is he surprised by this turn of events? “Back then I would not even have asked those questions about settling down. I was just interested in women as the equivalent of fast food. I’m now settled, squeezed into my new life, but I am still a man and I tell it loudly, which people don’t usually. I still like women.” In the film he is depicted as hot tempered; does he still solve arguments with his fists? “I have given up this because I have gained weight and don’t want to become someone else’s punch bag.” The phone call ends with them both getting the giggles because Abdel has said something so rude and sexist Philippe refuses to translate it. If my limited French serves, it was something about it being a pity that I was a man, unlike the gorgeous German journalist Bild sent to interview them.
Abdel was pictured with her laughing as she perched on his knee. Philippe, meanwhile, had his hand placed on her thigh, by Abdel.
After lunch, Philippe shows me his garden: terraces of eucalyptus, cypresses, pampas grass and white roses. It is an idyllic place and he likes to sit out here reading French philosophy and poetry, one of his greatest pleasures in life. “I left Paris to come here because of the sea breeze. It is not too hot and there aren’t many clouds.” The film is based on his bestselling memoir A Second Wind, which he dictated into a voice-activated tape recorder at night when he couldn’t sleep because of pain. “But that was when I was a widower. Now I am working on a new book about politics and I can’t do that in the night because I have a wife.” Her name is Khadija and she is a Muslim from Morocco. They have three daughters, two biological to her, another, well, it’s complicated because Arabs don’t recognise the term adopted. He is Christian and, when he had this house built not many years ago, he made sure it included a small chapel.
I ask what he makes of the movie. “The directors came to see me here three years ago and very kindly they asked me to read the script and I was able to help them make it more realistic, though they did include some scenes – such as Abdel pouring boiling water on my legs to see if I felt it – that didn’t happen in real life.” One of the funniest scenes shows Abdel trimming Philippe’s beard and leaving him with a Hitler moustache, just before he goes on a date. That didn’t happen either, but, again, it was the sort of thing he would do.
Another funny scene shows him being tricked into smoking a joint. “That was true. He said it would help me. In fact it doesn’t help. It takes away the pain and puts me to sleep for two hours but I wake up feeling tired. First time I tried it I was 48.”
Was it strange seeing himself portrayed by an actor on the big screen? “François Cluzet was good casting, but I’m so laid-back after 20 years in my wheelchair that nothing surprises me, nothing bothers me. When François came here, he watched me constantly for three days. I didn’t feel comfortable about that.” And he might be having a visit from another actor soon – Colin Firth – for an English remake of the film by the team that made Bridesmaids, Hollywood’s biggest comedy hit of last year. “That would be great if he is cast. I love his acting. The King’s Speech was fantastic.”
In A Second Wind Philippe writes eloquently about the joys of paragliding; how he used to listen to Bellini on his Walkman and smoke cigarettes. He did it a lot before his accident, hundreds of flights, and not long ago he tried it again, strapped to another flier. What was he thinking?
He laughs. “It’s the beauty, it is also the technicalities. It is difficult to try and do it as well as the birds.” He still lives with the pain of that accident every day. As he puts it: “Phantom pain my a—. It’s very real. It’s a neurological pain. Scalding and corrosive. Constantly on fire. I cry because I am in actual pain, not because I’m sad.”
He tried suicide once, wrapping his oxygen tube around his neck and leaning back. Does he still think about doing it? “No, I have completely stopped thinking about it. It is quite common this reaction, when the pain gets too bad. I attempted it because I felt guilty that I was going to be a burden on others who had to look after me. Basically, I don’t give a damn about being handicapped but to be a burden – that was a problem. It was unbearable because I was always in charge and then all of a sudden I was dependent, especially on a wife who was ill.”
He has been following the case of Tony Nicklinson, the British man with locked-in syndrome who went to the courts to appeal for the right to an assisted death. On the morning I meet Philippe the news is reporting Nicklinson’s death. “I think he died of starvation,” he says. “I have no judgment on this. And I wouldn’t like anyone to use a law in a case like this. The family and the doctor and the individual have to decide together, but you have to be very careful. I have a good friend who has been in the same state as this guy for 20 years, and he writes books with his eye and there is no question of him giving up. But you do go through depression, it is part of our condition, the pain can be depressing. If you are in a deep pain period you might think you want to give up, but you have to be careful about allowing others to help this guy kill himself, because he might come out of the depression. I would be very sad if I had succeeded in killing myself 19 years ago, because I have enjoyed the 19 years that came after that.”
He writes movingly about his first wife Béatrice, who died in 1996; has the passage of time helped him overcome his grief to some extent? “In the first years I found it hard to talk about her because I would get upset. Sometimes when I’m asked about Béatrice it still takes me a moment to answer. We have pictures of her everywhere here. She lives with us. Time helps. But I was lucky to know a lady like this.”
As well as photographs of Béatrice, there are modernist paintings, another subject which is played for laughs in the film. Before he met Abdel, he had never mixed with people who didn’t give a damn about high culture. “Abdel simply couldn’t understand modern art,” he says with a fond laugh. “He would dismiss it all as bulls—. But at least he came to enjoy some of the classical music I liked, just as I came to appreciate some of the pop music he liked.” It is a touching note on which to part. Philippe gives his warm smile and I give his hand a squeeze. I know he can’t feel it in the conventional sense, but in other ways I’m sure he can.
‘A Second Wind’, by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo (Simon & Schuster), is available to order from Telegraph Books at £7.99 + £1.10 p&p. Call 0844 871 1516; books.telegraph.co.uk. ‘Untouchable’ is released in London cinemas on September 21, then nationwide a week later