See You Up There
Albert Dupontel, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Laurent Lafitte, Niels Arestrup, Mélanie Thierry, Émilie Dequenne
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…for sheer, gutsy, shoot-for-the-stars artistry and verve, there’s nothing quite like it…
Personal and political, macabre and mesmerising, cynical and hopeful… prolific actor and director Albert Dupontel’s See You Up There is a difficult film to pin down. An acerbic satire of war-profiteering set chiefly in post-World War One France, it’s shot through with a sense of the fantastical that echoes the works of Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro and – perhaps more appropriately – fellow French filmos Jean-Pierre Jenet and Marc Caro (you could pair this one with Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement for a note-perfect double feature).
The plot, somewhat simplified from the source novel by Pierre Lemaitre (released in English as The Great Swindle), sprawls. Surviving a suicide mission forced upon them by their glory-hound commanding officer, Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte, all but twirling his mustache), two French infantrymen stick together after they are discharged from duty following the war’s end. One, Albert Maillard (Dupontel), is a middle aged man of modest means, used to getting the short end of the stick. His friend Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart, also see in BPM), is a gifted artist from a wealthy family – one he refuses to return to, as his face has been horribly mutilated in that final, savage action.
Returning to Paris, the pair, believed killed in action, struggle to keep themselves fed – and to feed Pericourt’s morphine addiction. Maillard trudges through menial jobs and runs petty scams until Pericourt, mad or inspired, hits upon a scam: they, living veterans of the Great War, will feed on their nation’s obsession with honouring the dead by designing elaborate war memorials for every town and village they can get to cough up an advance – and then scarper with the money.
That’s the central irony at work here – while actual returned soldiers starve, France will spend thousands to honour those already fallen. That’s a grim bit of business, but in the role of director, Dupontel refuses to wallow, instead imbuing his film with brio, energy, and a touch of magical realism. This is a lavish production, and even when its depicting the carnage of the battlefield, it’s just so pretty.
That’s a running theme here – a comment on the way the ’20s roared after the horrors of the war; holed up in their shared garret, Pericoult devises elaborate masks to conceal the ruin of his face, just like France (and the rest of the world, let’s not dissemble) quickly draws the bright blanket of the Jazz Age over any lingering reminders of the conflict.
Things get complicated when Pradelle circles back into their lives, now a decorated hero who is running his own post-war profiteering scam. Worse, he’s worked his way into the embrace of Pericoult’s family, impressing his banker father (Niels Arestrup) and romancing his sister, Madeleine (Émilie Dequenne). That’s quite the coincidence, really, and not the only one to crop up in the storyline – perhaps a necessary shortcut resulting from trying to boil down 600 pages of dense prose into a couple of hours worth of cinema. Still, it sets the stage for the back end of the film, driving our odd couple heroes towards dealing with their past before they can escape to whatever future awaits them.
If there’s a key issue with See You Up There it’s that it never lets up – incident upon incident, character upon character, and scheme upon scheme are all piled onto us at such a clip that at times it threatens to become exhausting, even as Vincent Mathias’ sumptuous, carefully composed, colourful yet slightly sepia widescreen photography teeters on the edge of overwhelming the senses. There’s so much in here, and so many moving parts that the film almost never takes the time to breathe – even its quieter moments seem determined to dazzle.
It’s almost too much of a good thing – but it’s still a good thing. For all its technical and artistic flourishes, what really carries the day is the relationship between Maillard and Pericoult. The performances by Dupontel and Biscayart, the former bringing all the hangdog expressive pathos of a great silent comedian, the latter delivering an impressively expansive performance that marries physical exuberance with subtlety to project his character’s inner life through and beyond his exquisite headpieces.
A beautiful, ambitious, thematically complex crime epic, See You Up There attempts to encompass so much that it was almost bound to miss a couple of the targets it was aiming for, but for sheer, gutsy, shoot-for-the-stars artistry and verve, there’s nothing quite like it out there at the moment.