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The sinister cloud of the Great War hangs everywhere over See You Up There (Au revoir la-haut), a visually death-defying adaptation of Pierre Lemaitre’s Goncourt-winning novel that follows three surviving soldiers who scheme their way to oblivion.
Written, directed by and co-starring Albert Dupontel in his most ambitious project yet, the film features a handful of jaw-dropping moments — such as an excruciating battle across no man’s land — held together by a strong cast, including BPM (Beats Per Minute) star Nahuel Perez Biscayart as a disfigured artist hidden behind an array of exquisitely ornamental masks. But condensing nearly 600 pages of story into a two-hour movie proves increasingly difficult as too many plot points take away from all the visual splendor, while the characters hardly have time to be drawn out.
If such weaknesses temper the movie, especially in its second half, Dupontel (9-Month Stretch) still manages to deliver a rare object in contemporary French cinema: a commercial film that mixes high craft, surrealist humor and extremely dark themes — of trauma, death, corruption and manipulation — in ways that hold together rather well. Both the setting and tone recall Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, which was a hit at the French box office and grossed $70 million outside of France. Whether such elements will translate to similar numbers here is uncertain, but in terms of pure cinematic prowess See You Up There deserves praise.
Dupontel narrates and stars as Albert Maillard, a lowly soldier who’s caught in the trenches as World War I comes to a murderous end in November 1918. Just before that happens, Maillard and his fellow French army grunt Edouard Pericourt (Perez Biscayart) are sent by their sadistic captain, Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), on one last sortie over the wall and onto the battlefield. The result — in a long sequence of nonstop pyrotechnics and skillfully staged action — is an absolute bloodbath, with Maillard nearly buried alive by debris and Pericourt’s face blown half off by mortar fire.
The two friends nonetheless stick together, and will do so for the remainder of the movie, as Maillard spends months by his wounded buddy’s bedside, administering morphine shots and learning about the latter’s life. Far from a common man, Pericourt is in fact a talented artist who has never found grace in the eyes of his father, Marcel (Niels Arestrup, as imposing as ever), a powerful Paris banker. Now that he’s gravely wounded, Pericourt prefers to play dead, switching identities with a corpse and living behind elaborate masks that he designs from his bohemian hovel.
Dupontel’s script, which was written with the help of author Lemaitre, does a decent job condensing the narrative early on, allowing the director several flights of fancy as he covers the aftermath of the conflict and its effect on the three leads — the third being Pradelle, who we follow on his plunge into postwar profiteering. As DP Vincent Matthias’ camera (shooting on HD but graded to look like old Autochrome images from the 1920s) hovers above mud-filled combat zones and cemeteries or soars through windows into Pierre Queffelean’s ornate sets, we track the characters like mice scuttling through the labyrinth of a land still reeling from battle.
While Maillard tries to earn an honest living doing odd jobs around Paris, the opium-addled Pericourt only wants to wreak havoc, and does so by hatching a scheme to sell phony monuments to French towns looking to honor the dead. He also participates in a WWI memorial contest held by his estranged father, who has unwillingly bankrolled another racket by Pradelle — now married to Pericourt’s sister, Madeleine (Emilie Dequenne) — involving low-rent mass graves for those killed in action.
There’s so much scheming going on, in fact, that the plot becomes too convoluted in its latter stages, making it hard to digest the number of coincidences tying everything together. Perhaps all the twists and turns worked in Lemaitre’s expansive novel, but here they arrive too fast for us to fathom, while the narrative jumps so much from one person to the next that you never have enough time know any of them very well.
Still, Dupontel has chosen a formidable cast that somewhat compensates for the lack of strong characterization: Lafitte is most memorable as a man who’s even more devilshly debonair than the rapist he played in Elle, while Argentine actor Perez Biscayart is terrific as a mutilated artist hiding behind disguises that reflect his constantly shifting moods.
Those masks, which were created by makeup effects artist Cecile Kretschmar, are some of many technical highlights in a $24 million production that showcases Dupontel’s talent for staging organized mayhem and clever bits of visual comedy, even in the tragic wake of the war. Indeed, if See You Up There‘s story of trauma and pilferage feels a bit stretched in places, the mood it leaves you with is a welcome mix of the gloomy and the giddy — a spectacle of darkness with flashes of light.
Production companies: Stadenn Prod., Manchester Films, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Albert Dupontel, Laurent Lafitte, Niels Arestrup, Emilie Dequenne, Melanie Thierry
Director: Albert Dupontel
Screenwriters: Albert Dupontel, with the participation of Pierre Lemaitre, based on the novel by Pierre Lemaitre
Producer: Catherine Bozorgran
Director of photography: Vincent Mathias
Production designer: Pierre Queffelean
Costume designers: Mimi Lempicka
Editor: Christophe Pinel
Composer: Christophe Julien
Casting director: Antoinette Boulat
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