Review by © Jane Freebury
A sensitive young soldier, an artist in civilian life, is wounded at the front during the final hours of war. It is a cruel irony that hostilities are officially over, and that the incident during which he sustains his devastating wound is engineered by a commanding officer who doesn’t want the fighting to stop.
The soldier, Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), was one of many thousands of demobbed soldiers who returned home to find they were good for nothing. Yet with acerbic wit style and humour, See You Up There reflects on the cost on a generation of young lives lost or destroyed by the war that was supposed to end all wars, World War I.
The book that the film is based on is only recent. Au Revoir La-Haut won its author, Pierre Lemaitre, the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015. With participation by Lemaitre, it has been adapted for the screen, by the marvellously talented Albert Dupontel, who also directs. As Albert Maillard, the narrator, he is in the key role of former bookkeeper who cares for Edouard after they return to civilian life.
On the battlefield, Edouard had saved Maillard’s life by hauling him out of a bomb crater. In the same instant the young man is hit by mortar and his own life ruined when his lower jaw is blown away. This eventually leads him to fake his own death.
When the two men return to Paris, joining hordes of returned soldiers, wounded, disabled and deranged, French society does not seem to know what to do with them. Plus ca change? After months of disillusionment trying to make an honest living, Maillard agrees to become Edouard’s business partner on a daring swindle. As dull foil to the Edouard’s mercurial brilliance, he is also staunch friend, and a father figure.
Edouard’s real father, Marcel (Niels Arestrup), is a beastly capitalist who had no time for his son’s artistic leanings. In the novel, Edouard was also gay, something the film has chosen to elide.
It just isn’t possible for Edouard to wear the grotesque mandible he has been issued with, so he creates beautiful masks, from the flamboyant to the minimalist, to express himself. He retreats from the world, behind elaborate creations that hide his disfigurement, and his despair.
The young Argentine actor, Biscayart, is wonderful as a man who can only communicate with the expression in his eyes and gestures. It is as though he is the sole silent actor working in a sound medium.
Although Edouard cannot bear to face his family again, his lovely sister is determined to find out about the circumstances of his ‘death’. This leads to revelations about her marriage to Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), of all people. Pradelle is the very lieutenant who, in a fit of spite when he heard the unwelcome order to lay down arms, organised a ruse that sent his men, including Edouard and Albert, over the top.
While dad is the subject of his son’s satiric drawings, a ‘gros con’, it is Pradelle, decked out in a bit, black vaudevillian moustache, who looks precisely like what he is. The out-and-out villain, the only character who is irredeemable and egregiously evil
See You Up There is bookended by scenes in Morocco, postwar. Here and elsewhere, the action is captured with terrific cinematography.
The early war scenes, beginning during an eerie lull when everyone is exhausted and fed up with fighting, we are told, even the German troops. A messenger dog runs across the deserted battleground, a sequence that is as contemplative and suspenseful an introduction to war as you could imagine.
This elegant film with its eloquent anti-war message is very accomplished in many ways. Ravishing to look at, by turns bleak and cynical but entertaining, it will find resonances for many in the mood of our own difficult age.
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle
See You Up There is currently screening in Canberra at Dendy and Palace Electric cinemas