See You Up There takes us to 1918, as the First World War edges to a close, on verge of armistice. Edouard Péricourt (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Albert Maillard (Albert Dupontel) are ordered, along with the rest of their company, to undertake one last foray into No-Man’s Land. Their commanding officer Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), sends his charges into the firing line of the Somme, where Edouard saves Albert’s life. But as the two prepare to retreat, Edouard is injured in an explosion that tears away the bottom of his face, leaving him permanently disfigured.
Back home in France, Edouard sinks into a deep depression, refusing to see his family and faking his own death. He hides his face behind a series of elaborate, ornate masks and befriends a local orphan, Louise (Héloïse Balster). Albert, feeling a form of survivor’s guilt, agrees to go along with Edouard’s plan to collect money from local councils, for a series of phony war memorials they never intend to build.
Writer / Director Albert Dupontel has adapted the novel The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre. Not content with being a one-man-band behind the camera, Dupontel also puts his expertise to use in front, casting himself as Albert Maillard.
The story is told in flashback, related to a French Foreign Legion officer in Morocco, and because it is related as memory, the France in which the story takes place maintains an element of the unreal. It brings to mind the filmography of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, sharing visual similarities with Amélie in its stylised depiction of a quaint and eccentric Paris. But it would be more accurate to describe See You Up There as the dark counterpoint to Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement. Both movies deal with a country picking itself up and dusting itself off in the aftermath of conflict, with a light approach that doesn’t cheapen the subject, but does soften the blows when the darkness threatens to take over.
If there are any stumbles, then the plot is unusual. Our heroes embark on what is essentially fraud, and while their victims are war profiteers, it’s an unlikeable motivation and a gamble in terms of character. The bad guys are also fraudsters, so it’s hard to see where the distinction lies between our heroes and villains. Nevertheless, See You Up There threads its unusual story through a framework of interesting contrasts – it’s dark, yet lighthearted; sad but uplifting.
Edouard, in his solitude, finds identity and purpose in both his creations and the company of Louise. He stitches his features into the masks he wears, conveying via craft, what his face cannot. He creates outsider art in its truest sense, as he isolates himself via his own faked death. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is excellent as Edouard, hidden for much of the movie behind a series of extravagant papier-mâché constructs, acting with his eyes and in monosyllabic grunts. Yet we understand him perfectly and feel his pain acutely.
As Albert, Dupontel brings a resigned and put-upon quality. His obligation to the man who saved his life now rules his own, leading him to participate in the scheme against his better judgement.
Best of all is Laurent Lafitte’s wonderful performance as army captain Pradelle – a reptilian slimeball, philanderer and casual murderer. He struts around like he owns the place and is a pitch-perfect ‘boo/hiss’ bad guy.
We also get a lot of impressive, swaggering camerawork. The cinematography is inventive and mobile and never passes up the opportunity to give us a great aerial point-of-view, particularly of the battlefields and war graves, to drive home the epic scale of loss.
With these stylish visuals and almost fantasy aesthetic, See You Up There juggles the serious and the whimsical with great success. While it might have an offbeat sensibility, See You Up There’s themes are universal and it emerges as a lyrical, funny and inventive movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★★☆
‘See You Up There’ begins a limited Australian theatrical run on July 19 and will be releasing in Perth July 26 with advance screenings weekend prior.