War, friendship and revenge

The mask is the message in 'See You Up There.'

A scene from the film ‘See You Up There’ (photo credit: JEROME PREBOIS)
A scene from the film ‘See You Up There’
(photo credit: JEROME PREBOIS)
Albert Dupontel’s See You Up There (Au revoir là-haut), which recently opened the French Film Festival at cinematheques throughout Israel and is now playing in theaters, is an extraordinary film that mixes genres and tones to tell a complex and often funny story about war, friendship and revenge.
It has been a huge hit in France and won five Cesar Awards, the French Oscar equivalent, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, which was based on a novel by Pierre Lemaitre.
Dupontel, who is best known as an actor and has appeared in such films as Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, is the star of See You Up There, as well as its writer/ director. He plays Albert, a quiet bookkeeper who bonds with fellow soldier Edouard (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who also stars in the new French AIDS drama, 120 BPM) in their hatred of their psychopathic commanding officer, Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), at the end of World War I. Pradelle is so cruel and self-interested that he pretends not to have received a telegram announcing that the hostilities have ended and sends soldiers to their deaths needlessly.
“Dying last is even dumber than dying first,” thinks Albert, as Edouard, an artist from a wealthy Parisian family, rescues him after he is nearly buried alive during the last moments of the war. Out of gratitude, Albert stays on to help Edouard, who is hospitalized after suffering a disfiguring wound while saving Albert’s life: The bottom half of Edouard’s face is blown away when a shell explodes near him.
Edouard does not want to return home to his cold, judgmental father, so he and Albert live together in an abandoned warehouse in Paris, and Albert ekes out a living doing odd jobs.
Edouard finds inventive ways to cover his injury with masks, and he comes up with an equally original scam to make money. He sketches designs for war memorials, Albert sells them to local officials and gets the money for building them up front, and the two of them will vanish with the money. The fact that this scam will expose a parallel scheme that Pradelle, who has married Edouard’s sister, is running with Edouard’s father (Niels Arestrup) makes it that much more enticing.
The movie is essentially a paean to friendship, the joys of revenge and a bitter satire of the kitsch of memorializing war. When it sticks to these themes, it is riveting. But the plot takes many twists and turns, and at times it loses its intensity as the coincidences pile up. There are also forays into more conventional plot lines, such as when Albert romances a sweetnatured maid (Mélanie Thierry) who works for Edouard’s father or when the two con men befriend a lovable orphan, Louise (Héloïse Balster), who helps them in their scam, a bit the way Tatum O’Neal did in Paper Moon.
This sentimentality softens the tone of the film, but not in a good way.
The acting, production design and cinematography are uniformly brilliant, but the masks themselves deserve special mention. There have been many movies with beautiful masks — Tian-Ming Wu’s 1996 film The King of Masks comes to mind — but I have never seen a movie where the masks were more strikingly original or more expressive. They function as almost a third hero in the movie, conveying delicate emotions with wit and imagination. They were created by makeup artist Cecile Kretschmar, and anyone interested in visual art will appreciate them.
At its best, the good-natured cynicism of the movie and its theme of soldiers using their military background to pull off a scam recalls John Huston’s wonderful epic The Man Who Would Be King. Dupontel and Pérez Biscayart have the same kind of intense chemistry that Sean Connery and Michael Caine had in that film. See You Up There has an energy and intelligence that will remind you why it’s worthwhile to see movies on the big screen.