Review: ‘Above the Clouds’

In "Above the Clouds," celebrated French journalist/novelist/filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer returns to his favorite stomping grounds, Vietnam, with a stellar cast composed largely of actors from his earlier films. Too actionless for hawks and too hawkish for doves, however, pic doesn't seem to have a target aud outside France.

In “Above the Clouds,” celebrated French journalist/novelist/filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer returns to his favorite stomping grounds, Vietnam, with a stellar cast composed largely of actors from his earlier films — allowing him to move his now white-haired characters freely back and forth through time via black-and-white clips. A young woman journalist investigating the disappearance of a film director in Thailand in 1978 soon finds herself exploring the aftermath of the war in Indochina. Too actionless for hawks and too hawkish for doves, however, pic doesn’t seem to have a target aud outside (or perhaps even inside) France.

The film feels like an excuse to confront modern “feminine” sensitivity toward the horror of the war in Indochina with “masculine” arguments for its necessity in a historical context. Indeed, it is only on this abstract level that the film works at all, the “plot” proving anti-climactic and needlessly confusing.

Female journalist (Florence Darel) investigates the story of a director, Henri Lanvern (Jacques Perrin), who was making his greatest film, “A King Above the Clouds,” in the uplands of Thailand in 1978 when he suddenly announced to his crew that he was leaving for three days to do pickups. He never returned.

The reporter becomes more and more obsessed with finding out who Henri Lanvern was, where he went and what became of him. But, it soon becomes clear that everyone around her, particularly her editor at Le Figaro (himself an old Indochina hand), knows a lot more than they are willing to admit, not-too-subtly manipulating and maneuvering her into certain lines of inquiry.

Pic’s all-male confederation of veterans have a history composed of a potent brew of nostalgia, bitterness and ambivalence that carries over into their present-day careers in the military, filmmaking, journalism and deep-sea fishing. In the face of this richness and mystery, the pretty little reporter can’t help but appear a clueless ingenue whose passion for truth may someday empower her but doesn’t give her much stature now.

Present-tense material in marbled military offices in Les Invalides, in rural rectory sitting rooms or on windblown shorefronts is crispy lensed by Francois Protat, but these static interviews can’t compete with the skillfully intertwined documentary and fictional combat footage extracted from previous works by the 75-year-old Schoendoerffer, who started as a war cameraman in Indochina in the ’50s, made “The 317thh Platoon,” which starred present topliners Perrin and Bruno Cremer, and the combat classic “The Anderson Platoon” in the ’60s, and his epic look back at France’s decisive defeat, “Dien Bien Phu,” in 1992.

Above the Clouds

France-Canada

Production

An Euripide Prods., Boobam, Arte France Television production with the cooperation of the Centre National de la Cinematographie and Sofinergie-France Television Images. Producers, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Frederic Sichler. Directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer. Screenplay by Pierre and Ludovic Schoendoerffer, from the novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Francois Protat; editor, Helene Girard; music, Laurent Petitgirard. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 3, 2003. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Florence Darel, Bruno Cremer, Claude Rich, Jacques Perrin, Wojtek Psoniak. (French dialogue)
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