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Flight of The Red Balloon
by: zettel 17 march 08
A Damien Hirst sheep of a movie. It looks like a movie; has all the elements of a movie: one superb acting performance; a screenplay and a narrative, of sorts; careful scene set ups; thoughtful cinematography, precise editing; even a ‘tarty’ lone piano soundtrack – blatantly, intrusively and unsuccessfully trying to add a gentle thread of charm to a film as perversely misconceived as any I can remember. But just like Hirst’s sheep – perfect in every way, body arched in a genuinely disturbing simulacrum of a live sheep in mid-gambol, this film lacks just one vital spark – life. And again just like the sheep, because everything is perfectly ordered and unsettlingly real you can’t see any reason, any detectable deficiency, any explicable absence that accounts for the fact that it is simply as a matter of banal fact - dead. Creosoting the garden fence would be more stimulating and rewarding than watching this movie – because that would have a point, even if boring and dull.
So why write about it? Valid question. Sometimes a film is bad in interesting ways. I don’t doubt that a great deal of sincere commitment, skill and talent went into this movie, not least with Binoche’s (Suzanne) powerful and ego-free performance: badly bleached, unkempt hair, a cluttered house teetering on the brink of chaos, and a personal life just as messy with a feckless ex-husband who left her an equally feckless writer friend tenant with an aversion to paying rent.
So just as Hirst’s sheep poses the deep but deceptively simple question – what exactly is this ‘life’, the only thing his perfect sheep lacks but without which it is just a bunch of flesh, offal and wool pickled in formaldehyde? Hou’s film raises a similar issue: it is not just what you see, or even its organisation into a planned whole that makes a film a film. OK perhaps this is a question as much up itself as the triumphantly precious, pretentious film notes for FOTRB handed out at the BFI. But still: at times this looks just like a home movie, and just as banal. What is the difference between simply living your life with a camcorder permanently switched on and creating a work of art?
Suzanne voices over Puppet shows – which really should have warned me off – to earn a living. She takes in ‘Song’ (Fang Song) a film student from Bejing as a quiet unemotional, very capable nanny for her delightful 6-ish year-old son Simon (Simon Iteau). That’s pretty much it – we share their lives for a couple of days. I’m not sure whether Hou is to be congratulated or condemned for making these couple of days just as tedious, just as frustrating as if we had lived them ourselves. Nothing happens. Perhaps that’s the point and the answer to my question – the ‘nothing’ that happens is….. well….life.
Oh yes the balloon. Hou dedicates his film as an homage to the sweet charming, award-winning 1956 ‘classic’ short film The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse. Lamorisse’s son Pascal was followed around Paris by a red balloon ‘companion’ that shared his day. Lamorisse’s balloon developed into a character, one moment comforting and protective, then capricious, wilful and mischievous. As a film it’s a one-off delight full of imagination and visual invention, whose charm progressively palls on re-viewing. Here Hou uses the same visual motif to absolutely no purpose. Endless shots of the balloon sort of following Simon but never functioning any way in the narrative. No connection, no linkage to the characters or their story. It frankly just looks like an arty artifice – a bit like a James Blunt lyric – it flatters to deceive. To offer this however well-meaning self-indulgence as an homage to Lamorisse’s genuinely inventive, however slight original, and worse, to visually cross-market the two films is a bit like offering an hour of Big Brotheras an homage to Shakespeare; or one of my poems as a tribute to William Blake.
This is such a mess I am reminded of one of the better episodes of Friends: Rachel, notoriously inept and incompetent in the ‘womanly’ arts of the kitchen decides to make a trifle as the dessert for a Thanksgiving dinner. She assiduously assembles all the ingredients and slavishly following the recipe from a book creates a beautiful dish: it looks like a trifle, it wobbles like a wonderful cream-topped trifle. Indeed it is a culinary masterpiece – if you like beef trifle. Real but weird.
At the moment the BFI has FOTRB on an extended run. Bet they cut it short.
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