“See You Up There” defies easy categorization. Imagine “War Horse” as directed by Tim Burton, or “Born on the Fourth of July” starring a seriocomic Robin Williams. It is 1919, at the tail end and immediately following World War I, and the French are quick to honor their fallen soldiers, erecting monuments in their honor, yet scandalously unwilling to support the veterans who return home from the front in this genre-defying tightrope act of a movie, which tied festival favorite “BPM” for 13 César nominations in France’s equivalent of the Oscars last year. (Through a curious coincidence, both films feature Argentina-born newcomer Nahuel Pérez Biscayart.)
Crime novelist Pierre Lemaitre was hardly the most obvious candidate to write one of the most celebrated World War I stories in recent French literature, any more than comedy actor-director Albert Dupontel (“Bernie”) was the person anyone might expect to adapt it to the big screen. And yet, Lemaitre’s efforts earned him the Goncourt Prize (his book, “Au revoir là-haut,” was published in English as “The Great Swindle”), while Dupontel’s film version of the ambitious Victor Hugo-like tome accomplishes precisely what modern cinema seems to be lacking when old-timers complain that “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”
Epic in scope, quixotic in tone, and stunning (if ultimately overreaching) in execution, “See You Up There” opens with a sweeping shot across acres of devastated battlefield. Pockmarked by mortar blasts and lacerated with barbed wire, this hellish no-man’s-land seems hardly worth fighting for, and yet, glory hound Lt. Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte, tapping into some of that same looks-can-be-deceiving duplicity he brought to “Elle”) is determined to claim one last victory before war’s end, sending two of his troops out into the fray and shooting them in the back to galvanize his demoralized men into action.
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Since “Saving Private Ryan,” many a filmmaker has tried to outdo Spielberg in capturing the sheer intensity of wartime action scenes; here, it’s not the staging but the circumstances that make the battle so horrifying: When a bomb goes off nearby, Albert Maillard (Dupontel) tumbles into a ditch, where he is buried beneath a cloud of dirt and forced to suck air from the lungs of a dead horse until he is pulled to safety by Edouard Péricourt (Pérez Biscayart), who is blasted away moments later, losing his lower jaw in the process.
These scenes are not especially graphic, adhering instead to a classical kind of theatricality, but they go a long way to establish audiences’ sympathies for two characters who, when the war is over, will find themselves marginalized by the very people they fought to protect. While it’s shameful to witness how Albert and Edouard’s peacetime existence depends on their running a series of small-time scams (stealing morphine from fellow veterans, selling mementos to patriotic suckers), what choice do they have?
By contrast, the dastardly Pradelle lives a comfortable existence, charming Edouard’s father, Marcel (the great Niels Arestrup), and wooing his sister Madeleine (Émilie Dequenne) while organizing an elaborate scheme of his own (he plans to get rich burying the country’s dead, even if it means hacking up their bodies and stuffing the mix-and-match pieces into undersized coffins). Clearly, Lemaitre looks cynically upon the myriad ways dishonest men took advantage of a country struggling to deal with the staggering trauma of the Great War, exposing not only the con men and crooks but also the hypocritical bureaucrats on whom they preyed. The novel’s complicated narrative probably would have been better suited to a limited series than to a feature, and yet Dupontel (working with the author on the script) does an admirable job of distilling its plot and, more importantly, a revisionist and far more nuanced view of the upbeat Roaring Twenties period for which Paris is famous.
Allowing the world to believe he’s dead, the artistically minded Edouard remains holed up in a loft, where he creates elaborate papier-mâché masks (an improvement on the primitive plastic surgery the doctors offer him) and befriends a little blond girl (Héloïse Balster) who helpfully translates the monstrous noises that emanate from his badly deformed face. In this young sidekick’s eyes, Edouard takes on aspects of classic fairy-tale characters, and indeed, the film seems to welcome a certain surrealistic quality as it swings from reverential solemnity to absurdist comedy, sometimes in the same scene.
Whereas blue-eyed, fragile-looking Pérez Biscayart plays a tragic figure, the more forlorn Dupontel may as well be channeling Charlie Chaplin in a lead performance that, in its nonverbal expressiveness, rivals Jean Dujardin’s Oscar-winning turn in “The Artist.” Though his character does speak, Dupontel’s eyes say more than his dialogue ever could, and some scenes are plainly constructed with silent-movie poetry in mind — as when he spies his former fiancée while working as a lowly elevator operator or, later, when he calls on a new love interest in an outrageous canary-yellow suit — while others are classic black-comedy gags (smash-cutting from one of Edouard’s nightmares to a meat grinder).
Since his cult directing debut with 1996’s “Bernie,” in which he played an adult orphan with severely broken social skills (in one scene, he unexpectedly bites the head off a bird), Dupontel has challenged conventional ideas of comedy and drama while rejecting reductive notions of good and bad morality. That sensibility suits Lemaitre’s source material, although few would have thought he had the vision to pull off such an expansive production — one with intricate period detail, huge sets, and considerable logistical demands (from visual effects to all those terrific masks). The result is simultaneously grand and eccentric, and though it sometimes struggles to sustain its identity amid such a strange mix of tones, the film holds together via DP Vincent Mathias’ dramatic widescreen lensing and a splendid, understated score from Christophe Julien.