An interesting but cluttered piece proves an essential watch for any francophile, but may not offer anything to the rest of us.
For his latest feature film, writer/director/actor/comedian Albert Dupontel chose to adapt Pierre Lamaitre’s The Great Swindle. This 2016 piece of crime fiction practically begged for an adaptation. It’s the sort of story that combines genres with such panache that you can smell the other directors all coming in with their individual pitches. While many films have found moral ambiguity to be mined from the First World War, “See You Up There” chooses to have the action not take place in the trenches, but rather, back home, where two veterans attempt to scam the country by selling fake monuments.
The movie begins with Albert Maillard (Dupontel) recounting his tale to a policeman in Africa, explaining how he got there. This immediately transfers us into the trenches, where we are introduced to the main villain of the piece, Captain Pradelle (a scenery chewing Laurent Lafitte). Pradelle is a villain of a simpler age, all mustache twirling and sneering, who manages to be both incredibly ruthless and a fickle coward. His first act of villainy in the film is by far his most ruthless: The ignoring of ceasefire orders from France. He orders two soldiers to go up into No Man’s Land, where he shoots them in the back, triggering a French charge. During the charge, Maillard almost loses his life, but is saved by fellow soldier and artist Edouard Péricourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), who is promptly hit by a shell, losing his lower jaw. From here, Maillard accompanies his savior back to a hospital, and, at Péricourt’s request, fakes his death and takes him in back home.
Back home, there is a transformation in Péricourt, something that takes many forms throughout the film. You see, Péricourt’s missing jaw is obscured for most of the film by a variety of masks he creates. The first masks are beautiful, almost ethereal, but as the film progresses, they become more monstrous. This is something that hinders the character. Eventually, as Péricourt’s eyes vanish from view, the character changes from someone empathetic to a Dionysian demon, wanting nothing more than to party and punish. He hurts everyone around him, from Maillard, to his grieving father (A wonderful Niels Arestrup), but still no one questions his plan to scam the French people. There comes a point where Péricourt turns from a figure of sympathy to a nuisance every time he appears onscreen, devoid of character and depth, simply there to give plot motivation.
There is a thread running through the film about the way humanity memorializes war casualties. Both Péricourt and Pradelle make elaborate plans to scam the French out of millions of dollars by using fake monuments or cemeteries. During one particular scam, Pradelle hops from grave-top to grave-top to get from his car to the investors. The investors stare at him, horrified at his literal dance on his comrades’ graves. Pradelle responds by remarking that he doesn’t want to touch the dirt. It reminds him of the trenches. For all his evil, you can see his point. Why shouldn’t he take the money of his countrymen he defended?
If only the film stuck closer to these ideas, and less to Péricourt’s elaborate displays, it might be something to really behold. During one scene, Péricourt hosts a lavish party, and suddenly memories of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge rushed through my head. Péricourt, wearing a mask which could be construed as blackface, leads a band while partygoers firing champagne corks into effigies of French politicians. The anger is visceral, the style is infectious, but all the characters in the scene feel empty.
It’s rare that a movie contains a scene that sums up all my feelings for it, but towards the end, there’s a scene where two characters interact on a rooftop. One character pours his heart out, and looks close to tears, but the other character, Pericourt, stares out, teary-eyed, from behind the mask of a peacock. If only this movie removed that mask, we might have reached something truly moving, instead of simply attempting to impress us.
The New York premiere of the film will be at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
You can buy tickets here.