The summer when I was 4, my mother took me each Friday to the town library to sit in the dark with a juice box, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and 10 or 20 other kids to watch a movie. This was a year or two before VCRs became ubiquitous, when watching movies was still by necessity a communal pastime. These library outings happened each week, but there's only one movie I can remember—vividly—seeing there that summer: a half-hour, nearly wordless French film from the 1950s called The Red Balloon.
Directed by Albert Lamorisse and starring his 5-year-old son Pascal, The Red Balloon, just out on DVD, is about a boy who, seeing the object named in the title tied to a lamppost one morning, shimmies up the pole to untie it and take it with him around Paris. He soon discovers that the balloon has a mind of its own and wants to play. He also learns that adults feel threatened by the distracting, impetuous object: With his bright red companion tagging along, he's tossed into detention at school and out of church entirely. His fellow 5-year-olds, meanwhile, see the balloon merely as something to be grabbed and poked and, eventually, destroyed.
Pascal's devotion to the balloon singles him out from his peers, and viewers (or like-minded 4-year-olds, at least) come to identify with this unassuming outsider. The movie is not straightforwardly allegorical, but the balloon does represent a kind of freedom and individualism at odds with the conformity of school and church and the bullying ways of the mob. When the film debuted, to great acclaim—it won best short film at Cannes and, remarkably, the Oscar for best original screenplay—these qualities had a special resonance: Made a decade or so after the liberation of Paris, the film celebrates a very Parisian balloon, all joie de vivre, surrounded by people who seem more suited to the Vichy era. (The schoolmaster in particular has the look of a collaborator.)
The balloon, in this reading, is the resistance, fighting not only authority but also ugliness—for, above all, Pascal's balloon is pretty, a perfect red orb of extraordinary hue, filmed to contrast with the gray streets and buildings of the city. After a stunning death scene (one of the little bullies punctures the balloon with a slingshot so that it slowly, painfully deflates, at which point another boy cruelly stomps it to death), all the balloons of Paris take flight and alight on Pascal, who wraps himself in their strings and is then carried through the sky above the city. You can interpret this ending in various ways, if you're so inclined, but the primary response to seeing those many-colored dots floating through a cloudless sky is "Wow, that's beautiful."
That is also the response one has to the best work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, the 60-year-old Taiwanese filmmaker whose latest movie, The Flight of the Red Balloon, is an homage to the Lamorisse classic. Or, rather, it's the response some have to his movies, which are characterized by long takes (often with little camera movement) and a disregard for traditional story structure. His champions—like Times film critic Manohla Dargis—speak of his "mastery of film space," the way he arranges people and objects in striking compositions on the screen. Detractors, such as Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, see a problem with "what happens" in his films—namely, "not enough."
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