By Willie Krischke – November 11, 2008
Nothing happens in “Flight of the Red Balloon.” Nothing. And when I say nothing, understand that I don’t just mean no robberies, kidnappings, car chases, explosions, mutations, gunshots, or conspiracies. I’m a good arthouse moviegoer; I know that in some of the best movies made, all the action takes place inside the characters. But nothing happens in “Flight of the Red Balloon.” Nothing. No revelations, no growth, no tough moral choices, no significant bonding over communication barriers, no overcoming or succumbing to racism, no falling in love, no falling out of love, no emotional healing, no emotional wounding, no dealing with the past, no discovering or losing hope, strength, peace, acceptance or happiness. When I say nothing, I mean nothing.
“Flight of the Red Balloon” is 100% pretension and artsiness. There is, of course, the titular reference to Albert Lamorisse’s famous short film from 1956, showing us that director Hsiao-Hsien Hou has probably seen more movies that you have. (For the record, I’ve seen that film, and it’s a hell of a lot better than this one. For one, thing, Lamorisse had the good sense to keep his movie to 30 minutes.) There are an awful lot of shots through reflective surfaces – shop windows, windshields. This is a auteur technique to show the audience two things at once – what’s in the reflection and what’s behind the window. Most of these shots are more annoying than effective, and lend the film a distinct film-school-exercise feeling. Hou also plays with motifs about stories inside stories – one character is an amateur filmmaker, and we occasionally get glimpses of the film she is making. Another character runs a puppet company, and we see glimpses of the puppet shows. But the motifs never add to the story, primarily because there is no story to begin with. Again, this feels like an exercise.
A better, more interesting movie could probably be made out of the footage cut from most documentaries. Juliette Binoche is a single mom and puppeteer who hires Fang Song to take care of her son, Simon. Binoche is fine, Song is fine, Simon is fine, but who cares? Song is a film student from Beijing. Binoche has problems getting her tenant downstairs to pay the rent or clean up after himself. This is the only point of tension in the whole story. A red balloon follows them around sometimes, though it disappears for long stretches. Nobody notices it most of the time.
A lot of critics are loving this movie, calling it a masterpiece, etc. I think this might tell us more about the critics than about the movie. It’s about struggling artists, it’s set in Paris, it’s slow and nostalgic and reflective and has a kid in it. Because it is so empty of just about anything at all, and because it’s slow enough to allow the mind to wander, I think a lot of people are bringing their own stuff into it. If you loved “The Red Balloon,” you might think this is a wonderful meditation on childhood. If you’ve ever been an artist or filmmaker struggling to pay the rent, you might think this is a pience on the struggles of artists in the real world. And if you’ve got fond memories of the days when you lived in a small flat in Paris, you’ll think this is a ruminance on the romance of Paris. But, if like me, none of these statements are true about you, you’ll probably find this to be a long, boring, empty and pretentious exercise.
- if you want to prove to your friends you’re artsier than they are.
- if you really, really – and I mean really – loved “The Red Balloon.”
- if you need a nap.
- if you like good movies.