“See You Up There” (“Au revoir la-haut”) is an absurdist black comedy that looks at class and the casualties of war through a lens that appreciates the style of another time. The movie begins in November 1919, before flashing back to the recent end of the first World War where two soldiers become trench war comrades under the command of the villainous commanding officer.
The movie is based on a 2013 book “Au revoir la-haute” (translated into English as “The Great Swindle” by Frank Wyne) which won the 2013 Prix Goncourt. The translation won Wyne the 2016 CWA International Dagger award. Director Albert Dupontel with Pierre Lemaitre adapted the novel and Dupontel co-stars.
The movie begins in an office where an older man, Albert Maillard (Dupontel), is explaining to law enforcement officers how he became involved in a criminal venture. In the not so distant past, Albert is battling the grayness of boredom and hopelessness in the trenches. He has struck up a friendship based on the friction of proximity with a younger soldier, Edouard Pericourt (Perez Biscayart). The latter paints portraits during their downtime.
Both sides–the Germans and the French have sunken into a depression even deeper than the trenches. Neither wants to fire and would rather wait out the final diplomatic denouement. The end is near and the lowly soldiers are ready to face it with a sense of resignation rather than celebration.
Yet the commanding officer, Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), is a man who delights in war and despite receiving word to hold steady, he picks two men–an old man and a young man–and sends them on a suicide mission. The men are killed and suddenly the ceasefire ends and the French soldiers are ordered to attack.
Climbing up and running into no man’s land, a middle-aged soldier realizes that the two soldiers were shot in the back by their commanding officer and Pradelle tries to personally take down Albert with some unfriendly fire. Diving into a ditch, Albert is almost buried when mortar fire sends in dirt and a dead horse, but it is the dead horse that saves the man who should be dead and then suddenly, he is pulled out by Edouard. But Edouard must stand up instead of cowering near the ground and that makes him an easy target. Shot, he is knocked off his feet and this time Albert saves him.
The unlucky shot has left Edouard with half his face, a fate he finds horrific and while the nuns at the hospital prefer to leave Edouard in pain, Albert, who waits at Edouard’s bedside, relieves Edouard’s physical and mental anguish with morphine. Edouard is eventually released from the hospital but he refuses to go home and Albert helps him disappear by exchanging his identity with a dead man.
But Edouard is now half-mad with a serious addiction problem that Albert must feed. Instead of the crude offerings of plastic surgery, Eduoard creates fantastical paper maché masks. In this madness, an innocent angle, a young blond girl (Héloïse Balster) becomes the go-between for the two men and is the only one truly enchanted by Eduourd’s artistic masks. Albert and Edouard will have to face the cold-bloodily pragmatic Pradelle and the son, Edouard, must “face” his father.
Despite the absurdist nature of the movie, there’s a serious underlying consideration. Now, of course, we have plastic surgery and have even made face transplants, but do we really treat our war vets any better?
“See You Up There” won a César for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Vincent Mathias), Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Niels Arestrup) and Best Supporting Actor (Laurent Lafitte), Best Original Music, Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Film.