For the 29th year in a row the Alliance Française French Film Festival is coming to Cinema Paradiso to showcase the best of bizarre and brilliant French film. With a diverse lineup, ranging from the comedic 50 is The New 40, and the emotional BPM, to the unique and lavish See You Up There (Au Revior Là-Haut), the festival showcases an array of humorous moments scattered amongst dark subject matter and intriguing characters.
See You Up There attempts to bring Pierre Lemaitre’s prize-winning novel of roughly 600 pages to life – an extraordinary feat by any measure. The film focuses on the lives of three World War I veterans, as they delve into the scheming underbelly of 1920s France in order to combat the bleak, post-war reality they find themselves in. Constructed mainly through flashbacks, veteran Albert (played by Albert Dupontel) speaks as narrator, recounting his story to police officials in Morocco. What follows is a narrative of addiction, disability, poverty, brutality and injustice, but ultimately the triumphant nature of friendship, forgiveness, and understanding. The restless undercurrent of loss resounding throughout this piece, however, cannot be ignored.
His memories throw us into the trenches of the First World War, with news having just arrived to cease fire – the war has ended. Despite this news, or perhaps in spite of it, the depraved Lieutenant Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte) forces his men onto the battlefield to face inevitable bloodshed. Many lives are lost throughout the grippingly realistic reconstruction of no-man’s land, and Albert and his friend – a striking-looking, blue-eyed artist, Edouard (Nahuel Pérez Biscayrat) – suffer immeasurably. Albert is almost buried alive, before being rescued by Edouard, who’s face is then greatly disfigured by a bomb during his daring rescue. The two friends struggle on together after the war – erasing their existence from the world by falsifying their death records, with Albert struggling to cater to Edouard’s needs, and Edouard grappling with his new physical and mental challenges.
The grand and presumably costly reconstructions of 1920s France throughout See You Up There are truly remarkable, providing a visually captivating gaze into the post-war poverty that was forced upon so many, as well as the disturbingly immense wealth it brought to others. Taking us from the trenches, to the impoverished alleyways, to the exuberant mansions built on bloodshed, See You Up There is a visual feast. In addition to the busy visual spectacle, the film is also rather fast paced – constantly wrestling with new, challenging themes that increase the complexity of the piece. The overflowing plot of Lemaitre’s masterpiece is hard to contain within a single film, however, and certain characters and relationships are unfortunately left simmering at the surface.
The character of Edouard is no exception. In order to express his creativity, and to comfortably go outside, he constructs elaborate and inventive masks, dabbling in new identities and personas that come with each new creation. A truly unique character, Edouard is left a little too unexplored – as only so much character development could fit in such a large adaptation. Instead, Albert takes the centre stage, to my slight disappointment. I would have preferred a more equal representation of the pair.
Despite this, it is Edouard that hatches the daredevil scheme that leads to Albert’s imprisonment and their story’s infamous nature. Inspired by France’s desire to honour the dead, Edouard concocts a plan to design elaborate war memorials for the deceased and receive payments in advance, only to never make a single sculpture – a profitable conspiracy made possible by the fact that both men are believed to be dead. While engaged with their all-consuming, immoral plan, their corrupt ex-lieutenant is also attempting to profit from the war, with a shamelessly negligent grave-digging business involving the war’s casualties. The lieutenant is yet another character who is left frustratingly unexplained and rather undeveloped, despite his potential as a captivating villain.
Regardless of these imperfections, which are understandably the result of such an immense adaptation project, See You Up There remains a stand-out example of the brilliance of French cinema. It is a piece brimming with distinctive and unforgettable characters, brought to life with wonderful performances. As the winner of 5 César Awards, this lavish, anti-war film is certainly worthy of its praise and your time. Step into the world of French cinema, and experience a side to post-war reality rarely examined with such humility and emotional honesty.
You can see more magic from the French Film Festival at Cinema Paradiso and Windsor Cinema until April 4.
Image sourced from fantasticfest.com.