[This review contains mild spoilers]
Going into a film solely on the strength of its poster is a recipe for surprises (and a chronic habit of the cinema card owner), and Albert Dupontel’s Au Revoir là-haut is no exception. Yet the poster’s beautiful design – which looks like a cross between V for Vendetta and Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium – belies the initial violence which opens the film. Adapted from Pierre Lemaitre’s 2013 novel of the same name, Au Revoir là-haut tells the story of two French soldiers in the First World War, Édouard Péricourt (Nahuel Pérez) and Albert Maillard (Dupontel), the former of whom saves the latter from certain death on the battlefield in 1918, but loses his jaw to a mortar shell in the process. Albert, traumatised, becomes indebted to Édouard and helps nurse him back to health in a military hospital. Édouard, devastated by his injury, has the option of plastic surgery by the best Parisian surgeons, but refuses and soon after, living with Albert, begins to create his own collection of exquisite and eclectic masks to hide his disfigurement. The pair then hit upon a scheme to design and sell war monuments (profiting from the in-vogue French patriotisme of the time) to the French establishment, which will never be made.
The film is a period drama-comedy which hinges on a wonderful, often moving performance by Pérez – remarkable since his only visible facial features during most of the film are his eyes, through which he conveys a great range of emotions – and vibrant recreations of Paris in 1920. Laurent Lafitte does a solid job as slimy villain Pradelle, as does Niels Arestrup as Édouard’s dominating father. We also often return to a police interrogation room, where Albert acts as a narrator for the story, although instead of smoothly gliding us from one act to the next this departure sometimes halts the audience’s immersion, and Dupontel’s performance is slightly overacted and melodramatic. However, the interrogation room is also necessary for the overarching plot as it is the scene of a strange, jarring twist right at the very end, which is unfortunate. Fortunately, this doesn’t take much away from the central story being spun through the duration.
Two questionable elements: the film comfortably fails the Bechdel Test, and contains one scene where Édouard wears a blackface mask leading a band performing in front of a crowd of Charleston-ing Parisians – though it could be argued that these elements are simply representative of the attitudes of the time. While it trips up slightly in its storytelling, Au Revoir là-haut is nonetheless a highly-stylised look back at the effects of World War I, presenting us with some stunning visuals and cinematography while avoiding any undue glamorisation of the period.
[Ciaran McQueen – @_delareine]