What could be more horrifying than the existential nightmare of war? Surely that is the apotheosis of every last cruelly dark facet of humanity given the form of guns, violence and senseless death?
It would hard to argue against that assertion but in writer/director Albert Dupontel film See You Up There (Au revoir là-haut), based on the book of the same name by Pierre Lemaitre (who also co-wrote the screenplay) a convincing argument is based that life after war comes close in its ongoing sapping of the human spirit.
Particularly when you have barely survived the end of the war at the hands of a conflict-mad commanding officer, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, who ignores the initial armistice order and sends many of his men to a needless, senseless death when both sides have provisionally agreed to cease hostilities, only to find he is very much a part of your post-war life too.
Set at the end of World War 1 in the early days of November 1918 and in the two or so years that follow, See You Up There is deliciously dark satire that uses black humour and magical realism to archly commentate not simply on the darkness of war itself but on the baser instincts of humanity that give birth to it in the first place.
The story centres on two comrades in arms, middle-aged bookkeeper Albert Maillard (Albert Dupontel) and malcontented artistic young rich kid Edouard Péricourt (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who somehow survive Pradelle’s last psychotically violent indulgence, but only just, with Maillard pulled from a filled-in hole by his new friend who then loses the lower half of his face to some precision artillery.
Freed from the hellhole of the trenches, the two men find themselves caught in a weird bureaucratic limboland with demobbing taking four months to effect, during which Edouard sinks further into despondency and Maillard ponders how on earth to craft a life for himself with no fiancée and no job.
By this stage, of course, faced with an uncaring military and civilian bureaucracy that speaks lovingly of respect for their countrymen’s sacrifice, but whose actions suggest a neglect that proves destructive for some, if not many, of the returned soldiers, Edouard has forged his own death and assumed a dead man’s identity (with Maillard’s help), unable to face his cruel, unloving businessman father Marcel Péricourt (Niels Arestrup) and convinced there is little of anything left to live for, now he is crippled, or so he thinks, by facial deformity.
Maillard sticks by his friend, but the tension is there, with the older man unable to forge a life that even closely resembles the life he had pre-war and Edouard, drugged out on morphine and heroin, his lust for artistic endeavours only rekindled when war orphan Louise (Héloïse Balster) demonstrates that she doesn’t care what he looks like, that she sees the man within.
Slowly but with significant missteps borne of frustration, inertia and an uncertainty about what life should resemble when so much of what constituted it has been literally and figuratively blown away, the two forge an entirely family of sorts with Louise, and schemes for selling war memorials to corrupt officials and then pocketing the money and running.
It sounds like a horrendous thing for two veterans to do, but the reality is that corruption is rampant with many men including Edouard’s father and his new son-in-law Pradelle – who marries Edouard’s sister Madeleine (Émilie Dequenne) to climb the social and economic ladder, unaware she is playing him back – and everyone is sticking their snouts in the trough.
Albert, being a man of sound principle and ethics, is deeply uncomfortable with their get-rich-quick plan but Edouard is not troubled in the least, angry at the loss of his face, furious at his father and other war profiteers and determined to claw something back, no matter the cost.
Alas, life is not simple and morality not that easily delineated, no matter how much we might like to think so, and Dupontel takes the story of these two men and the corrupt post-war world in which they live – one on which, for instance, Pradelle pockets vast sums, to bury empty coffins – to fashion a bleak yet charming morality play writ large, which is equal parts Baz Luhrmann-esque, Greek tragedy/Shakespearian epic, Amélie-magical and Catch-22 existential madness.
Magically real and absurdly humourous and yet deeply, movingly poignant and ferociously unflinching in its portrayal of the darkness of humanity, which sometimes begets war but often times, inequitable, corrupted peace, See You Up There is a masterful work that balances black humour and grieving sorrow with equally sure hand.
Suffused with an exquisite well-judged use of light and colour, courtesy of Vincent Mathias and a spry cohesive ability to leap from joyous silliness to withering condemnation, sometimes in the same scene, the film is one of those rare beasts that injects intellectual rigour into quirkiness, truth and vivid introspection, loss and sadness into a hyper-real world that can seem simultaneously hard and happy.
The richness of the film’s narrative comes from the fact that it doesn’t accept that facile idea that war is bad and peace is wholly good; in fact, much of the time it makes it boldly clear that peace is simply war by other means, an observation made by more than one seasoned observed in our time.
The reality is that war and peace, though on the surface vastly different, are fed by the same human impulses for advancement and ambition, riches and security, power and influences and while the former is most assuredly the evil and most destructive of the two sides of the same coin, peace comes its own heavy prices, its own darkness and existential dread, hidden amongst the rare moments of life and joy.
See You Up There isn’t completely bleak and dark – as mentioned, there is much humour, love and happiness scattered amongst the veiled vicious satire – and it does have a happy ending of sorts, but for the most part, magical realism and impish possibility aside, it is a drama par excellence, possesses of a robust narrative that never skips a beat and an insightful and poignantly-articulate delivery that astutely picks up war and peace and wonders, at the end, which one is really worse.