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Fantastic Fest 2017: ‘See You Up There’ Finds Joy In The Aftermath of War

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Nobody can wring more quirky delight out of historical adversity than the French. See You Up There is a film full of death and opportunistic exploitation of death, and though the English title suggests some sort of optimistic view, the film takes no such stance; the finality of death hangs over it like a disease (the “see you” might be more accurately read as “RIP”). The characters, having returned from the most senseless, brutal war ever fought, have been so inundated with death that it no longer effects them, and in that space Director Albert Dupontel finds room for levity, humanity, and creativity. Beginning in the days immediately before the 1918 Armistice, we follow two veterans, an odd-couple bound by a life-debt, as they navigate the dispiriting waters of post-war France. This grand and elegant piece of filmmaking deals with complex and weighty ideas, yet delivers them in a tidy and emotionally nourishing package.

After a monstrous lieutenant (Laurent Lafitte) orders an assault on the eve of Armistace, Édouard Péricourt (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a soulful young artist from a wealthy family, loses his jaw to an explosion. Making proverbial lemonade, Édouard asks compatriot Albert Maillard (Director Albert Dupontel) to swap his dogtags with a corpse so as to avoid going home to a toxic relationship with his father. Albert complies, and the two move in together in a run-down loft. Albert, once a bookkeeper, sets about finding whatever humiliating work he can, while Édouard makes increasingly elaborate masks, nurses a morphine addiction, and befriends a street urchin. One day, overcome by cynicism, Édouard concocts a plan to design and sell war memorials and run off with the proceeds. Albert, typically upstanding and honorable, is skeptical, but eventually joins him in his scheme.

The scope of the film is relatively small, but it feels positively expansive. The joy of creativity and the excitement of a good caper electrify both these characters and the film around them. Its quirkiness may offend more jaded viewers, but Dupontel shows restraint, and most of the film’s whimsy is fully grounded in character. The characters, most especially the two leads, are lovingly conceived and portrayed. Édouard is shown to a be a deeply creative artist, but the film never shies away from his ungrateful and spoiled nature. Biscayart, charged with a masked and largely wordless performance, crafts a thorough and indelible performance out of body language and moans. Dupontel adopts the more thankless straight-man role, but imbues his Albert with vivid decency and a charming haplessness. Their relationship is a beautiful construction, toxic yet vital, and the love they develop for one another makes perfect sense.

This is their movie, so other players are understandably less developed, but Lafitte has great fun with Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, a man with absolutely no redeeming qualities. He doesn’t literally twirl his mustache, but he does make a bundle of money by improperly burying soldiers. Édouard’s father (Niels Arestrup) is nearly as villainous, though not nearly as fun. However, given a more subtle arc, his stern and restrained performance pays off well. Elsewhere, young Héloïse Balster gives a delightful presence as Louise, Édouard’s young orphan friend.

See You Up There is classic grand cinema, and leaves you feeling cozy and regenerated, but the film’s themes resonate well past the credits. What does one do when confronted with the cruelty and pointlessness of civilization? Some double down on their material pursuits, using their compromised humanity to open vast new frontiers of profit. Some dig into the creative process, rejecting the din of humdrum existence and finding meaning only in freedom and creation. Some go back to work, do what they can to live, and sustain themselves by taking care of others. Dupontel’s film generally maintains a moral distance, neither condemning nor endorsing its heroes behavior, but it is this exploration, and that ambiguity of righteousness, that makes his film so interesting. See You Up There is a film about life, illuminated by the specter of death.

Emmet Duff is a small town Ohioan living in Austin, TX. When he's not writing about film, he cares for plants, takes pictures, and goes exploring.

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