How do you deal with pain in your life? Two films that explore answers to this question are showing now…
See You Up There
Dir: Albert Dupontel
It’s been 100 years since WW1 and the stories that have flowed out of that awful conflict are many. None have been like this one though.
With the armistice signing only days away, unscrupulous officer Pradelle orders a pointless over-the-top attack on German lines to further his own post-war career. In the process, Edouard Péricourt receives a horrific facial injury and saves Albert Maillard's life. A firm friendship begins. Life after the war is varied; Pradelle marries Maillard’s sister and makes a swindling fortune: building war cemeteries and charging the govt. for burials of non-existent people. Meanwhile it seems only a large scale scam involving selling fake war memorial statues will allow the two to escape poverty.
Dupontel’s adaptation of Pierre Lemaitre’s Au revoir là-haut (Goodbye Until We Meet in Heaven) sounds like a movie with no heroes, right? This is certainly the case but Pradelle is painted as the man of little ethics. Where the two friends rip off only rich sponsors desperate to make their mark on local town squares, the wealthy Pradelle seeks to become ever wealthier. Pradelle has a moustache just right for twirling and the smirk never leaves his face. Maillard and Péricourt, in contrast, take in a semi-orphaned child and just scrape by day to day. Ever the artist, Péricourt disguises his facial injury with a series of enchanting emotive masks. His artistic expression, from sketches back in the trenches to a life as art itself never wanes and finds a new focus in his drawings the war memorial catalogue scam.
With a sumptuous visual palette on show, Dupontel paints a story that is rich, emotional and intelligent. There are dark themes at hand (PTSD, death, corruption, the glorification of war) but the director explores them skilfully, aided by his own suitably blank performance as Maillard, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as the gifted Péricourt and Laurent Lafiite as the dastardly Pradelle. Whilst there are grim moments throughout, this is a film with a heart for the underdog and a message that art can be transcendent, lifting us above both the mundane and the terrible.
Dir: Anthony Shergold
Funny Cow follows a decidedly different path, following one of the lower arts: stand-up comedy, though it also springs from the grimmer side of life. Life for a girl in the northern England of the seventies was restrictive in just about every way. It was made even more difficult if the girl in question refused to buckle under to these restrictions and felt made for other things; possible stardom as a comic.
Drawing on the pain of her upbringing with an abusive father, fellow children determined to drag down any tall poppy, a society with only one life path allowed and, eventually, a partner in the shape of her father, Maxine Peake plays Funny Cow as she is known. It is Peake’s charismatic performance that lifts this piece a little.
For a film about the life of a comic, it is relentlessly dour. Whereas See You Up There manages to communicate the theme of the redemptive power of art through the method of its storytelling, Funny Cow uses comedy as an idea to contrast the tragedy of Funny Cow’s life without any actual laughs. In fact the in-your-face chauvinism and racist bigotry of much of the stand-up comedy of the northern club circuit of half a century ago is clearly on show and treated with less judgment than might be expected. In the end Peake’s character could have been taking on the world of professional golf and the story would have been essentially the same
A lush soundtrack from the wonderful Richard Hawley softens the grimness at times but this is a tale in which even the potential triumph of Funny Cow’s comedic career feels less like success than barely staying afloat. In a tale where no-one seems to learn anything and nothing is questioned, it’s hard to see what has been gained in the telling of the story, unfortunately. As much as you want to applaud Funny Cow’s attempts to do things her way, there is little to celebrate.