Returned soldiers mask sorrows with scams

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Au revoir là-haut (See You Up There) (MA). Director: Albert Dupontel. Starring: Albert Dupontel, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Laurent Lafitte, Niels Arestrup, Héloïse Balster, Émilie Dequenne. 117 minutes

Héloïse Balster and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in See You Up ThereThe French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen) is the benchmark when it comes to wedding whimsy and visual inventiveness to serious, even tragic themes. Albert Dupontel — who worked as an actor with Jeunet on the 2004 wartime drama A Very Long Engagement — has taken a page out of the master's playbook for his own World War One fable, See You Up There.

Dupontel wrote (adapting Pierre Lemaitre's novel), directs and stars as Albert Maillard, a middle-aged private who as the film commences is being grilled by a superior about some as-yet undisclosed misdeed. The bulk of the film is told in flashback as Albert relates his wartime experiences, friendship and shady post-war partnership with fellow soldier Edouard Péricourt (Biscayart).

The filmmaker quickly establishes a bold visual style. A bravura tracking shot captures the progress of a messenger dog across shell-shocked no-man's land to the French trenches, where Albert, Edouard and their comrades are hunkered. When we meet their commanding officer, the sadistic Pradelle (Lafitte), he is sheathed in darkness, a cigarette ember and drift of smoke in place of his face.

The dog, it turns out, is carrying word of the Armistice, but Pradelle would prefer to provoke one final shootout with the Germans. During the battle that follows, he will send numerous of his own men to their deaths, and murder two of them himself. Amid the bloodshed, Albert will be saved from near death by Edouard, who will be hideously maimed by a German shell in the process.

Albert and Edouard's friendship is forged in that moment; in mutual compassion, and a shared knowledge of Pradelle's diabolical nature. Their and Pradelle's fates remain entwined mostly due to plot convenience, but the magic and charming theatricality of the film's execution smooths over the occasional clunkiness. Certainly we become deeply caught up in the characters and their progress.

An opium dream on the part of Edouard, who has lost his jaw as a result of that battle, reveals a troubled childhood and alienation from his stern father, Marcel (Arestrup). Marcel is a captain of industry who never related to his artistic son. Edouard convinces Albert to falsify hospital records so that his family will think him dead, preferring this to showing up deformed on his father's doorstep.

 

"Although Pradelle has been visually stamped as the villain from his first appearance, the film is conscious of the resonances between these ethically dubious schemes; there is a complexity that belies the film's surface-level staginess."

 

This sleight of hand sets a pattern, as the two men, damaged by war and desperate for money, collude on an intricate ruse, selling designs for war memorials that they never intend to build. Edouard, having plumbed the depths of opiate addiction, comes alive in the scam, a puckish schemer in a series of elaborate papier-mâché masks, aided by a young orphan, Louise (Balster), who has befriended him.

Biscayart's performance as Edouard is alone worth the price of admission. Edouard has suffered much, and channels his suffering into a living work of real-time performance art. Biscayart turns the near wordless role into a Chaplinesque study of physical performance, all expressive eyes and eloquent gestures and strangely musical grunts (which, magically, are promptly converted into language by Louise).

While Albert and Edouard are busy exploiting a nation's grief as a remedy for their own traumas and inustices, Pradelle procedes with a scam of his own, growing rich off the war dead. Although Pradelle has been visually stamped as the villain from his first appearance, the film is conscious of the resonances between these ethically dubious schemes; there is a complexity that belies the film's surface-level staginess.

It would do the film a disservice to reveal too many of the surprising plot turns that ensue — even those that jar for seeming overly contrived. Suffice it to say that both Edouard and his father are led separately to reassess their estrangement; and Albert and Edouard find cause to reflect on the ways in which the savagery of war has affected their moral compass and their sense of themselves.

Inevitably, too, there is a need for these antiheroes to confront Pradelle, who in Edouard's absence has managed to involve himself with both Marcel and with Edouard's sister, Madeleine (Dequenne). There is an old-time Hollywood formula to all of this, but the film's visual inventiveness and period detail, and the strength of the performances of Biscayart and Dupontel, elevate it substantially.

  

  

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, See You Up There, Albert Dupontel, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, World War One

 

 

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Les noms francais sont si romantiques ne sont-ils pas.
Pam | 27 July 2018


A fascinating movie - great to read this insightful review albeit after seeing the movie.
Peter Johnstone | 27 July 2018


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