Albert Dupontel writes, directs and acts in this highly creative, often bizarre, quite harrowing and sometimes fearless French Film, adapted from the 2013 best-selling award-winning French novel Au Revoir La Haut by Prix Goncourt-winning author Pierre Lemaitre.
Translated to See You Up There, (Au Revoir La Haut) was first published in English book format as The Great Swindle. It has many dizzying, disturbing and decoratively dazzling moments, designed to take your breath away.
Basically the narrative is all about delivering poetic justice to those who seek to thrive on the misery of others in times of crisis.
The storyline is related by Albert Maillard (Albert Dupontel), a rank-and-file former bookkeeper French infantryman, who along with his comrade of trench warfare, the gifted artist Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), is doing his best to survive as WW I comes to a terrible conclusion on November 9, 2018.
This is an extraordinary cinematic achievement, one that our host Philippe Platel, the The Alliance Francaise French Festival 2018 Artistic Director informed us had been a huge hit at the French Box Office in 2017, where its spirit of unity endeared it to a huge majority of local viewers, making it one of the most successful French movies of the century to date.
This terrible tale left my companion and I in a completely surreal frame of mind for ages afterward. We left the theatre, wondering how to react to its terrible themes of trauma, corruption, misery, manipulation, cruelty and death, as well as its ability to carry a grudge by the characters we meet and briefly get to know.
They all fit somehow into a often heart-stopping sometimes shocking narrative. What it did illustrate is how, when we don’t consider our actions, they can have a domino effect, injuring many people along the way.
There are many scenes that are indeed praiseworthy. The period setting of See You Up There is the early 1920’s in Paris, a highlighted view of Hector Guimard’s original Art Nouveau entrance to the Paris Metro letting us know we are visiting the historically important Montmartre district.
Don’t Read Any More If You Don’t Want Spoilers
The opening scene of the film is symbolic of what is to come. We follow a dog with a message container weaving its way through a vast chaotic maze of huge holes left by mortar shelling, which if you fall into during combat are likely to swallow you up in their stifling sands.
Man’s best friend is on its way to finding the French men bunkered down in terrible trenches below ground, such a depressing and debilitating aspect of hand to hand combat they were still involved in at this time in the world history of warfare.
The dog is delivering a message to the men’s handsome but entirely sadistic Captain Pradelle (Laurente Lafitte), ordering him to cease all fighting. Peace is imminent. Both the Germans and the French have had enough.
It doesn’t take long for us to realize Captain Pradelle is not happy with his orders. He has thrived on the power he has enjoyed over people’s lives during wartime. He willfully screws up his orders and sends his men on one last sortie out over the wall with terrifying results, leaving us all just as shocked as they are.
The visual effects employed to make us feel we are entirely involved in this terrible murder and mayhem encounter with the enemy, are very impressive, serving to both highlight and reinforce the utter futility and absurd aspects of men at war. We certainly need these reminders.
Pradelle first sends two of his men on a reconnaissance of enemy lines in daytime. Hearing two shots ring out and presuming the enemy have shot dead their comrades, the men including Maillard and Edouard on Pradelle’s orders charge, emotionally seeking redemption for their fallen mates.
Maillard however stumbles upon their bodies among the action and discovers alarmingly, that they have both been shot in the back. In a split second it dawns on him Pradelle has killed them both so he could urge his troops into battle just one more time.
Pradelle witnesses Maillard’s encounter and tries to bury his crime by pushing Maillard into a very deep hole where the sand comes down and covers him. He is unexpectedly pulled back to the surface by his friend Edouard, who finds him just alive, having been able to breathe the last air inside the head of a dead horse whose body was in the hole with him.
This fact grotesquely becomes a creative point in the story as it unfolds.
The action is a bloodbath and shortly after rescuing his friend, Edouard has his own face below the nose and part of his neck blown away by mortar fire, a horrendous injury you wonder how anyone could begin to recover from either physically or mentally. The war ends.
Sticking like glue to his best friend, Albert Maillard spends months by his buddy’s bedside in a field hospital policed by nuns, who don’t give him morphine to help with the pain. Maillard sees their decision as barbaric. The reasoning seems to be Jesus suffered, so the war mongering men should too. No compassion there.
Driven by his own compassion and a desire to act, Maillard steals Morphine ampules and administers relief to his friend, while talking to him and learning about his life. He has grown up with a father who offered no affection or any recognition of his son’s fine artistic talents.
Albert helps Edouard who is terrified to return home disfigured to his family, to fake his own death and he and his catatonic friend finally return to Paris together.
Maillard rents a roof space in a rare remaining eighteenth-century style worker’s cottage as their home. The artistic skill of the French creatives involved make the apartment look so attractive with hardly anything inside, we wouldn’t mind moving in too.
Albert Maillard is basically an honest man and when he fails to get a job as a bookkeeper after the war to support their expenses, he takes a number of jobs, that all fall through, including being an elevator driver and wearing advertising billboard signs. It is disastrous, as he slides inevitably towards poverty and despair.
While he’s doing all of this to keep their ends up, Maillard’s also trying to help Edouard recover from the emotional trauma of losing half his face and needing to be fed for the rest of his life through a tube. He’s sunk into deep depression and his practical down to earth friend is at a loss what to do to help him.
“Below his nose is a gaping void,” wrote Lemaitre… “… his throat, his palate, his upper teeth are visible. Beneath them is a pulp of crimson flesh and something deep within that must be his epiglottis. There is no tongue; his gullet is a red-raw hole. ….”
It’s not Maillard who inspires Edouard to come back into the world of the living, but an orphaned girl Louise (Heloise Balster). She spends hours by her new friend’s side not judging him in any way, but learning to interpret what it is he is saying to help him.
They become entirely devoted to each other and he comes up with a morally deplorable swindling scam to bring in plenty of cash for the unlikely trio. Edouard with his great ability, decides to design emotionally powerful memorial statues with the idea they can be erected in villages all over France.
He wants to sell them and take the cash up front before moving on to the next place before the locals need to build them and before anyone realizes what it is they are doing. Maillard becomes a reluctant participant, brought so low by lack of work.
It’s indeed ‘a great swindle’ and soon their coffers are full of francs…but for Edouard, it is not more repulsive than that of glorifying the sacrifice he made for France with a memorial, when he lost half his face for his country.
He’s aware that his fellow citizens on a whole have a strong feeling of distaste for how he looks and to combat their revulsion, Edouard designs a wardrobe of amazing quite awesome masks to wear, some for daytime, some for night and some for partying time, including one he can flexibly use to change his expression from sad to smiling.
Meanwhile, Maillard while searching for a new job, is sent for by Edouard’s sister Madelaine (Emilie Dequenne), whom he has already had a bizarre encounter with back at the front when faking his friend’s death and declaring him dead. As Edouard is now believed dead, she is now the natural heir to Marcel Pericourt (Niels Arestrup) and his banking fortune.
Back during the repatriation of the wounded back to France first after the war, Pradelle caught onto the fact Edouard was still alive when he unwittingly witnessed Maillard having him loaded on a stretcher bound for Paris.
When he is made aware their former horror Captain knows their secret, it hangs over Maillard’s head like a dead albatross.
Pradelle continues his evil ways after the war and becomes involved in a huge scam of his own, making money on the misery of those parents who have lost their sons through providing graveyards for the remains he chops up and sells many times.
On the other side of his personality, he also delights in bonking every woman who comes into his line of site, regardless of any marriage vows.
The sub plots going on all around us while this is all action is going down, will truly send your head spinning. Condensing the storyline in what was a very large book, down to suit a nearly two hour film is not without its disadvantages.
As it turns out, he has tracked down and manipulated Edouard’s sister Madeleine, or so he thinks, into marrying him. They are now living at home with her influential and very rich papa, who is seeking to sponsor a war memorial for his local district in Paris.
Maillard finally stumbles upon the truth about how rich his friend really was when he denounced his family. Invited by Madeleine to the family town house on the Champs Elyssess where plush luxury surrounds him, he is completely dazed.
At dinner he meets Edouard’s infamous father, as well as his very attractive household maid Pauline (Melanie Thierry).
She is as drawn to him as he is to her. Although, as it turns out, she is also one of the mistresses Pradelle is blackmailing into having sex with him.
All the co-incidences that draw the protagonists together and into a number of incredible climaxes towards the end of the film, come home to roost, including the final incredible scene in Morocco.
It all happens so fast, you cannot help become giddy and awestruck by the outrageous aspects of it all.
Especially when Edouard finally and unwittingly comes face to face with his father again. The glamorous full-face mask he is wearing at the time disguises his whole face, born out of a tradition woven into court life and French culture first during the sixteenth century.
As Edouard is indeed an aristocrat it makes sense he would wear masks to disguise his identity, although in the end even his father won’t be fooled, recognizing his son by his piercing blue eyes.
While it brings them to reconcile and recognise their failing as human beings, it also forces us to witness yet another tragedy as Edouard overwhelmed by all that has happened, deliberately plunges off the roof terrace to his death.
The good thing to know is Pradelle finally gets his comeuppance, delivered by a man with the wonderful name of Merlin; well we needed a little magic somewhere amidst all the carnage.
Maillard throughout the film has been relating his whole terrible tale to the police chief in Morocco where he has fled. The final irony is finding out the Police Officer listening to this terrible tale is connected to them all through what happened in the trenches to his son. He was one of the two men Pradelle shot in the back.
Now the terrible story about his son’s death and the chain of events since, have been revealed. Compassionately, he allows Maillard to leave to go forth and make his own way in the world with the two women still present in his life, Pauline and Louise.
Would dare to say you will either love or hate Au Revoir La Haut, and I will let you know one day in the future what I decided. The French title Au revoir là-haut literally means – goodby up there… we presume in heaven…
It apparently comes from a letter written by a soldier before his execution for treason in 1914. It is certainly a sign of the huge range of emotions that permeate the book and the film. Your emotions will be engaged on every level, and then some.
The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2018 50-film line-up is as Phillipe Platel reminded us, ‘sprinkled with humour ‘à la Française’, as well as compelling and multi-award-winning films.
He’s right when he also said, ‘we should keep curious and open-minded when watching the films that while planned to delight will also surprise us with… well, unexpected storylines”.
What an understatement!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
Watch the Trailer
Au Revoir La Haut
See You Up There
Directed by: ALBERT DUPONTEL
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart,