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Pierre Lemaître's The Great Swindle: A Prize-Winning WWI Novel Hits the Screen During France's Great War Centennial 


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"Those who thought this war would end soon were all long dead. Killed by the war. And so, in October, Albert treated reports of an impending armistice with a healthy dose of scepticism. He gave these rumours no more credit than he had the propaganda at the beginning of the war which claimed that the bullets of the Boche were so soft they burst against  French uniforms like overripe pears, leaving soldiers roaring with laughter. In four years, Albert had seen his fair share of guys who died laughing from a German bullet."
first paragraph of Pierre Lemaître'sThe Great Swindle, translated by Frank Wynne


In the U.S., November 11th is a day for honoring and celebrating military veterans from all wars with parades, church services, and other commemorative gatherings. On this day, while France also acknowledges the sacrifices of military personnel from multiple conflicts, the country devotes most of the national holiday to November 11, 1918, the day warring nations signed the armistice to end the Great War. The numbers are diminishing as years pass, but crowds of French people still turn out for morning gatherings in front of the WWI monuments that take up a central place in every French village, town, and city. After reading the names of the war dead, local government officials place flowers and flags in front of the memorial. Parades, fanfares, children chorales, and, of course, the glass of locally-made wine offered by the mayors follow. In the Commonwealth nations, the poppy appears everywhere as a sign of remembrance, but in France the bleuet, or cornflower, is the flower found in lapels, bouquets, and corsages.


In addition to the rituals, France, especially during this centennial period, marks the date by featuring contemporary WWI-specific literature, art, and cinema.  Pierre Lemaître, renowned for his crime novels, won the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, for his 2013 novel, Au revoir là-haut, translated as The Great Swindle by Frank Wynne. Just about a week before the beginning of the 2017-2018 centennial year of WWI, French director, Albert Dupontel, released the film adaptation of Lemaître’s pathbreaking book, Au revoir là-haut, translated in English as the film, See You Up There.

aurevoirlahautcoverfrenchThe title, The Great Swindle, sounds strange among familiar WWI books like The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West, A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, or All is Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This book is not only about a post-war traumatic experience; it is also about the art, and, yes, the money that could be made by making a business out of the millions of dead bodies that had a hard time finding a proper grave.

Before discussing The Great Swindle, it is imperative to keep in mind that the Great War killed 1.4 million French soldiers and left millions more maimed in mind and body. I call upon the excellent summary, published in The Independant, by British novelist, Edward Wilson, to set the scene:

“In his book, Pierre Lemaitre imagines the lives of two “survivors” with insight and compassion. Édouard Péricourt is a gueule cassée, a smashed face. Lacking a lower jaw, he smokes cigarettes through his nostrils and survives on morphine and heroin. Albert, rescued by Édouard after being buried alive with a putrefying horse, copes with flashbacks by donning a mask of the horse. Édouard, creator of the therapeutic horse's head, also designs masks for his own mutilated face. The purpose is not to hide his gaping wound, but to express an idealised self: “a pretty pink mouth set in a slightly condescending sneer, with two faded autumn leaves glued high up on the cheeks that looked like tears”.

This book is alternately tender and ghoulish. The exhumations militaires involved transferring hundreds of thousands of bodies from scattered battlefield graves to vast necropolises of tidy decorum – at great profit for the private contractors involved. Henri d'Aulnay Pradelle is a villain from the Grand-Guignol tradition. Pradelle trades on his heroic war record and aristocratic good looks to become a remembrance profiteer. He orders cheap undersize coffins that require corpses to be hacked and bent to fit – and his piecework-paid labourers are not encouraged to waste time matching bodies to the correct plot. When challenged, Pradelle rants: “What bloody difference does it make…? When parents visit the grave, do they dig it up to check that it's their body and not someone else's?” Like the best villains, his cold logic is hard to fault.

Édouard and Albert start their own commemoration racket marketing ghastly war memorials. Édouard, an artiste manqué with an instinct for shocking the bourgeoisie also understands how to sell monuments to the bourgeoisie: “Not everyone is gifted enough to turn out something ugly.” Their plan is to pocket the money and scarper. Lemaitre's novel is a rare synthesis of the tragic and the comic – and the book's dénouement is a masterclass in nail-biting suspense. The author is at his best when probing the human condition. His portrait of a mind torn by the trauma of combat is uncannily accurate: “He was permanently on alert; anything and everything made him suspicious. Serenity, he knew, was gone forever.”

517jqxHQenLAs journalist Anne Brigaudeau writes about the novel, "the 14-18 butchery sometimes overshadowed the postwar period, where the dead hero was preferred to the battered survivor. Today in France the French have forgotten that the worship of the fallen soldier generated lucrative profits, from the war memorials to the military cemeteries." It is in this France, that of the years following the first world war, that Pierre Lemaitre builds his eerie plot

The Great Swindle organizes itself around a double scam and a double suspense, with an extremely documented historical background. Add a dry, biting, precise writing style, which handles black humor brilliantly and it is easy to understand why it has been acclaimed by critics and booksellers. It was one of the best-sellers of autumn 2013.

Four years later, Lemaître’s novel finds itself again among the main threads of WWI commemoration in contemporary France with its film adaptation, See You Up There. Stéphanie Trouillard, WWrite contributor and France 24 journalist for the WWI centennial in France, wrote a review that puts not only the memory of war into question, but also the capacity to adapt a war novel into a war film. The following is an adaptation and translation of her review:

"Seduced as a reader by the Lamaître’s 2013 Goncourt Prize, film director, Albert Dupontel, undertook the film adaptation of this amoral fable about two survivors of the trenches, who survive the war to embark on various scams using war memorials. Dupontel said "I found the book extremely inspiring, I saw it like a brochure elegantly disguised about our current situation. All the characters seemed to me part of a confusing modernity. Lemaître shows how a  small minority of greedy people dominate the world.”

In this film, according to Trouillard, "Dupontel emplys the same whimsical and exuberant writing style of Lemaître’s The Great Swindle. It is not a dark and gloomy film about the First World War, but a colorful and explosive fable about the post-war period. As in the book, the 14-18 fights appear on the screen at the beginning of the film so the spectator can’t forget the terrible traces left by the conflict: visible and invisible wounds.

Through a gallery of colorful characters, the film is like a panorama of the human soul. The kinder character of Albert Maillard, finds himself enlisted, like thousands of soldiers in a war that exceeds his comprehension and destroys his body. The wicked character of Pradelle is an upstart lieutenant who becomes addicted to the taste of blood and fills the pockets with the death of others. Another character, the tortured Edward Péricourt, represents a promising young artist who loses his jaw in the trenches.

It is this last character, the artist, who is at the heart of the plot. Mostly silent in the film, he embodies his broken mouth with subtlety. Hidden behind the all the magnificent masks he makes to cover his deformity, he represents the young soldier who has almost been skinned alive. Fighting for his country took away his youth and beauty; so Edward decides to use his art to take revenge.

The drawings, sets, and masks are so magnificent, they are like characters in this film. Albert Dupontel did not skimp on visual effects to reconstruct the Paris of the 1920s, just at the limits of surrealism,.

But, by being overly punctilious on the details, the spectator gets lost in this universe of fantasy. The emotion that was so present in the novel takes second place to the visuals in the film. The breathtaking aesthetic takes over the feelings. Among laughter, tears and social satire, See You Up There fails to touch the heart as completely as The Great Swindle."

Read the book? Planning to see the film? Let WWrite know what you think about another country’s literary/cinematic take on the darkest sides of WWI memory.

See You Up There trailer

Date: October 06, 2017

See You Up There Trailer