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Returned soldiers mask sorrows with scams

  • 25 July 2018


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

The 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.