Monday, May 26, 2008

"Flight of the Red Balloon"--Film Review

"Flight of the Red Balloon" has been hailed by critics as a beautiful, even sublime, film. Although I seldom attend films, I saw it today flanked by some congregants from my church. Yet it puzzled more than it dazzled.

Set in Paris (with English subtitles), we find a beautiful, single (or perhaps her husband has been away for a long time; I couldn't tell), distraught mother, Suzanne, hiring a young Taiwanese nanny, Song, to look after her five-year-old son, Simon. She passionately reads lines for a Chinese puppet theater. At several points a red balloon mysteriously appears near the characters, especially the boy. There is no discernible plot: no tension, no release, no mystery, and ...I'm afraid to say, no meaning.

The serenity of the balloon and of Song offset the disorder of the mother and the other characters. I got the sense of looking in on some people's mostly pedestrian lives. Near the end, a blind piano tuner appears and tunes a piano in the family's flat while other things are going on. Why, what for? I have no idea. Looking hard for meaning, I found none--except, perhaps, in the contrast between the simplicity and eerie serenity of the balloon and the lives of most of the characters. Does the balloon symbolize anything? Could it be a sign or signal of transcendence? If so, we are not told. We are left without any cognitive sense of meaning in or for life.

Any meaning or aesthetic qualities is left to the cinematography, since there is barely any dialogue. The mother (Juliet Binoche) plays her part well (at least what there is of it), but she does not appear all that often in the film.

Why have so many critics been entranced by this film? Perhaps because their expectations for meaning in life are so low, given their secularism (f they are such). Scenes of Paris, a mysterious red balloon, a precious child, and a gorgeous actress may be enough to alleviate their angst for two hours. But that is little comfort, indeed. Then again, I am not a film critic, so maybe I just missed far too much, as this writer (writing for Christianity Today) claims.

7 comments:

pgepps said...

and ...I'm afraid to say

Why, what for? I have no idea

If so, we are not told


Many critics I read would take these phrases from your review as evidences of the "sublimity" of the film, construed as the "cognitive sublime" after Kant....an appearance which calls forth a desire or need to comprehend, and defeats this comprehension, thus evoking a sense of the magnitude, distance, or greatness of the truth which must lie behind/beyond that appearance. Of course, you were already on that ground with "signal of transcendence," I suppose.

I suspect that the "cognitive sublime" is not achieved where (1) comprehension is not defeated but simply unnecessary, which you seem to feel, here; and (2) when it is divorced from other registers of sublimity. The white whale in Moby Dick is sublime because he is cognitively opaque (all sorts of reasons are projected upon him, but he never answers except with behavior), but also because he is deadly, terrifying, unpredictable, unseen when underwater or far away, and affiliated with the deadly, vast, concealing, terrifying ocean.

A red balloon, it seems to me, would require other significant cues to be "sublime."

You have inspired me to see the movie, though, in an effort to decode this. I wonder if the balloon describes a globe filled with emptiness, no matter which way you construe inside/outside? That might be the Zen reading.

Cheers,
PGE

Doug Groothuis said...

'...an appearance which calls forth a desire or need to comprehend, and defeats this comprehension, thus evoking a sense of the magnitude, distance, or greatness of the truth which must lie behind/beyond that appearance. Of course, you were already on that ground with "signal of transcendence," I suppose.'

The balloon is more of a cipher than anything like you describe above, let alone Moby Dick.

pgepps said...

That's certainly how it sounded to me, from your responses to it. Like I said, you've made me want to watch the film (analytically: it seems unlikely I'd take pleasure in it). Thanks for the interesting discussion!

Robert Velarde said...

Maybe you should go see Speed Racer, as it's full of deep epistemological ruminations. Yeah, I'm kidding. I do, however, admit to seeing Speed Racer recently. I thought I was going to have a seizure after experiencing so many colors, sounds, and images bombard my sensorium.

Katie said...

I wonder if this film is a response or 'sequel' of some type to the original French movie 'The Red Balloon'. It enchanted me and my children when they were small. It's a simple film, no real dialog and it won an Oscar back in 1956. More about 'The Red Balloon' can be found at that bastion of reliability, wikipedia. (that was a joke)

Though it seems to have good info on this movie; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Balloon

Doug Groothuis said...

Katie:

It is not a remake, but a kind of tribute. In fact, the new movie refers to the old a few times.

I'd like to see the original.

DG

tickletext said...

Any meaning or aesthetic qualities is left to the cinematography, since there is barely any dialogue.

I won't comment on the film since I haven't seen it, but you say this as if it is a bad thing, as if it were possible and indeed desirable to create cinematic meaning apart from cinematography. But why assume this?

Isn't cinematic meaning largely created through its visual logic? And if so, why not judge film by the standards of film, instead of those of literature?