The Perfect Film for the Holidays: The Red Balloon

Quite possibly the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen.

Before seeing The Red Balloon I didn’t let myself learn anything about it. I had no idea it was an Oscar winning film either. After seeing it, I can understand and appreciate why this is such a beloved classic. It is truly a superb little slice of cinema. You’ll completely forget what you’re doing when you let yourself just be immersed by the simple life of the little boy who, on his way to school one morning, runs across a beautiful, large, shiny red balloon.

The balloon is in distress tangled up at the top of a street light. The boy shimmies up the post and saves the balloon and over the remainder of the film they become the best of friends, forging a relationship that you more than likely would not have expected (unless you read about the film before hand). If you haven’t heard about this film, take a chance, find it and be surprised by it. It’s gorgeous; and in light of recent tragic events in America, it’s the kind of film that needs to be seen by the masses.

Its flaws cinematically are easily overlooked when you realize that you are nothing but a kid again in love with the balloon just as much as the little boy. In a perfect, French, 1950s, existential storytelling kind of way, The Red Balloon takes an inanimate object, that you’ve likely never thought about longer than a second before, and makes it come to life. If the cinema of today still retained these unique, humane, effervescent, fulfilling qualities maybe we wouldn’t care so much about the opportunity to own a semi-automatic assault rifle.

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The Motorcycle Diaries

Director Walter Salles has produced some amazing films in his time in the business. City of God  and Lion’s Den are two of my hands down faves. Salles is a strong director too, focusing on what’s matters most to him, which in many cases seems to be the trajectories of his very human characters. In The Motorcycle Diaries he take an opportunity to focus that love for character on two real-life historical figures, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado. The film is 3/4 travelogue but still near perfect despite its inability to concentrate on one blossoming storyline at a time. I have complete faith in Salles directing Jack Kerouac’s here-to-now unfilmable On The Road which is currently set to release sometime in 2011.


The Motorcycle Diaries
is full with the feelings of “being there,” every scene seems to take you deep into the social and political culture of the cities and towns Ernesto and Alberto pass through. Instead of hundreds of cut-a-ways to B-roll footage of the vivid beauty and splendor of the countries of South America, Salles makes the decision to leave most of that out and any gorgeous imagery is always punctuated with the likes of our two travel guides. As an audience member, there’s no time to look away or become fixated on something outside of the cultures which are sampled.

The most meaningful portion of the film for me, was the last 1/4 during which “Che” becomes Che and he and Alberto spend a few weeks living and working in a leper colony that has been segregated from the “normal” community by the vast girth of the tumultuous and silty Amazon. On his last night there, Che celebrates his birthday with the community across the river from the lepers, but finds himself longing to spend the night with the colony he’s become close to across the way. With no boat available, and in the pitch black of night, the young and terribly asthmatic Che treads through the rough current of the Amazon, swimming to reach the shore of the leper colony. He makes it, and there’s really nothing left to say after that. Che is a good person and the title cards sum up the future of his existence and ultimately his demise in the closing minutes of the film.

Not without it’s weaknesses, the film is important in that it seeks to uncover what the catalyst may have been (if there was one) for “Che” becoming Che, and it does so with great care and a fair amount of interest in the life of his best friend and fellow traveler Alberto. Alberto is the opposite of Che in many ways, he’s got all the makings of a politician and seems a sharp contrast in many scenes to that of Che. But Salles appears to have a soft spot for Alberto’s story just as much as the film is really notable because it follows the infamous Che Guevara. In the final shots, Salles cuts from young Alberto watching as his friend and fellow traveler Che flies off in a chartered plane, to the real life Alberto in his old age watching as a plane flies across the sky. It seems inasmuch as the two characters were undeniably individual, they were also inextricably connected.

Fear(s) of the Dark

Still from the segment by filmmaker Blutch

Fear(s) of the Dark is a chiaroscuro nightmare – well, actually, maybe more of a bad dream. It’s not really frightening in terms of today’s horror film standard, there is virtually little to no gore in any of the stories. It’s an “anthology film” (or collection of shorts) all dealing with characters who experience fear in various ways. Part of the problem is that it’s animated and monochromatic. Comic book lovers may find it a pleasant experience to see the still, inked frames come to life, but a film lover like me found it difficult to stay captivated.

In terms of relating it to other films, it looks stylistically like Sin City, but with an arthouse twist. In the whole anthology there are only one or two bursts of color: red and green. They happen in an interlaced – almost poetic – recurring segment that consists of visual trickery and a female narration that confesses all the many things that scare her in life.

For the most part each of the segments in the film are interesting, although far from thrilling or scary. There’s one about a pack of angry dogs who are all leashed up, but their master lets one go throughout the course of the entire anthology. Each time he lets one go, it mauls and kills someone nearby, until finally (and obviously) he sics the last one on himself. Another segment is about a man who discovers a large, empty house and breaks inside to get out of the blistering cold. There’s no light in the house, so he lights his way with firelight and that is the extent to which we can also see. It’s actually one of the best in the compilation and rightfully is placed at the end of the film.

Still from the segment by filmmaker Richard McGuire.

There’s not a lot to sink your teeth into here, but for the most part it all feels nicely original and if you’re into graphic design and art, this is certainly a film that you should check out for some inspiration.

Welcome

Welcome is an amazing film. A tapestry of drama interweaving politics and emotions as if it were some one-of-a-kind, hand-blown glass vase that was so fresh it was still cooling. A brutal depiction of how immigrants in France are treated, it’s also an inspiring portrait of how strong the bonds of love can be. I wish I was hearing more about Welcome here in the States, because I think it is something that should be seen by Americans – especially when you compare our treatment of illegal immigrants to Europe’s. The irony of the title (and its awesomely integrated scene), make this beautiful film a slap in the face that will sting long after.

Set in Calais, France, a coastal town that is also notorious for it’s influx of immigrants (primarily those from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan), the film centers on a seventeen-year old Kurdish boy, Bilal, who is working his way to London to accomplish three things: send money back to his family, play football for the Manchester club and reunite with the girl he loves. Initially we meet him while he’s en route, hiding within the cargo of a tractor-trailer. He’s caught, processed, branded with a number on his hand and soon is standing in front of a judge.

Seeing as though Bilal is a minor and a refugee from a war-torn country, the judge decides not to send him back, but not to let him stay either. So, like many other refugees and illegal immigrants in Calais, he is forced to live in a Ghetto-like community, which is continually raided by law enforcement. It’s so bad, as a matter of fact, that even the individuals who come to provide food to the immigrants are under threat of arrest by the police – labeled “activists,” though all they do is hand out hot meals. Sadly, this was not fictional, for more on it check out the video I’ve embedded at the end of this article.

To make it to London, Bilal will have to sneak into the back of another tractor-trailer that is on its way there. The key to that is learning to breathe with a plastic bag over your head. Because the carbon monoxides that enter the trailer would eventually kill them, illegal immigrants traveling by this method have learned to adapt by breathing in bags (or when possible, venting the trailer somehow). Bilal, however, hyperventilates and panics with a plastic bag over his head. So he’s decided to try another way; a way that hasn’t been attempted by any other immigrants (that I could find record of). Bilal is going to swim across the English Channel.

Calais, of course, is the perfect place for this (and a big reason for some of its immigrant influx); because its beaches are so close, you can almost touch England. On a clear day you can probably even spot the Cliffs of Dover; smartly the director did not choose a clear day for his beach scenes. In order to swim the English Channel, there are a couple of things Bilal will need first: 1.) to learn how to swim, 2.) a friend (for support); and, 3.) a wetsuit (ten degrees for a ten hour swim is pretty heinous). The beauty of the story is Bilal gets everything he needs, and all because of one man. His guardian angel, you may believe.

Bilal’s narrative is only one streak of color in this beautiful work of art; then there’s his guardian angel’s streak. Simon is a swim instructor at the local pool. We meet him as he’s in the middle of a divorce and seemingly dejected with his life as it is. It becomes clear later that he is still in love with his wife, although the same does not go for her. Maybe it’s the banality of running the women’s water exercise class everyday or maybe it’s the fact that his soon-to-be ex-wife is one of the few in Calais who brings aid to the illegal immigrant communities and he wants to re-gain her love, or maybe it’s the need to vicariously re-live the dreams he once had as an Olympic swimmer, but when Bilal finds his way to the pool one day in order to start swimming lessons, Simon is almost immediately sympathetic to his cause. Its part of the beauty of the film that, true to life, there are so many reasons for why people do the things they do.

Because I care so much about this film, I’m careful here to not spoil the story any further, but I will say that the will of Bilal to make it to London is matched only by that of the will of Simon to get him there. It’s a poignant story that unfolds perfectly and needs no frills, special effects or huge stars to carry it (although Vincent Lindon is a big star in my mind after this and Mademoiselle Chambon).

According to Wikipedia, almost 1,000 people have swam the English Channel (whether successfully or not), so in terms of a unique idea – this is not – for Bilal. It’s coupled with his back story and the constantly intriguing presence of Simon in his life that this becomes such a unique, brash idea. Clearly not an impossible feat, but emotionally and physically taxing, we watch in awe as Bilal attempts and attempts again. Its inspiring for not only the viewer, but for Simon who at one point tells his wife (in a superb line of dialogue), how he reveres the young man for crossing foreign lands and his will to cross the Channel all for the love of a girl, when he himself couldn’t even cross the street for his wife.

It seems like less than political of a film as I re-read my thoughts above, but I’ll re-affirm here that it’s only due to the smart direction of the storytelling and the movie that allow it to be digested as this kind of drama, when underneath it all lies the hypocrisy and indecency of the French attitude towards immigration. It’s a powerful film and was a hugely attended one in France when it premiered in early 2009. The director actually held debate with the French Minister of Immigration on the TV program “Ce soir ou jamais.” You can find it online, but only in French. I have, however, posted below another interesting brief discussion with the director from an interview in Australia. Check it out and then see this film. You’ll not be disappointed.

Coco Before Chanel

Coco Chanel wasn’t really Coco, she was Gabrielle Chanel. Not fond of the Coco moniker as a young woman, it seems poignantly odd that she would take it as the name for her product line later in life. This is only one of the austere unconventionalities of Ms. Chanel, a woman who also refused to style herself after, literally, any woman of the time. Not only did she dress different, but she carried herself different, thought different, dealt with men different, and effectively ended up different than probably many of the women she knew.

All these character traits (and more) seem charmingly and effortlessly espoused by the magnificent Audrey Tatou. If Tatou didn’t fall so well into this role, it would be an easy film to pass off as trite, foreign independent arthouse drama. The idea of the unacceptable love affair that brews between Coco and “Boy,” her English playboy who she later finds out is marrying an heiress to a coal fortune, is brilliantly played out in the final acts of the film. She’s at first hurt and dismayed at his unfaithfulness to her, but once he offers to cover startup costs for her hat-business in Paris we find her easily swayed. I’ll admit, this is the turn I was waiting for the storyline to take, but in retrospect I feel bad that I kept assuming Chanel would build her empire on the foundation of another’s coin.


I believe she was sincere in her love for Boy, but it takes the better part of the film to determine where her sincerities lie. In some respects, I tend to think that she kept the Coco name in an effort to keep alive the memory of her lover, confidante and similarly nicknamed business partner (who was at once empathetic to her dislike for Coco). When we’re forced to watch her destroyed at the site of Boy’s car accident (one that she would have been in had she actually went with him), we can’t help but pay close attention in the next scene to her nonexistent facial expressions as she sits on the mirrored spiral staircase of her studio watching the trail of towering models slink past in all their monochromatic Chanel glory.

Was her (soon-to-become ubiquitous) work outside of hat-making the result of a need to fulfill what she’d lost? It’s the question that seems ultimately answered as she cracks the coolest of French smiles before the credits roll.

Pickpocket

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a film that should be your typical crime drama. It’s got all the makings of the perfect crime drama, all the right characters and all the right plot points, yet Bresson’s filmic style creates a crime drama unlike many others you’ve seen.


Michel is a young man without a job or much direction in his life. His mother is ill and bed-ridden. As the film begins Michel immediately finds his calling in the art of pickpocketing. I say “art” because, Bresson and his characters make it look like an art in its planning, performance and even reward. At first, Michel is not that great at it; teaching himself he slips up and even gets arrested. With no hard evidence to convict him, he is let go.

Eventually, Michel tries again; practicing and learning the ways of thievery. One night, in a gorgeously composed scene, Michel notices a man lurking outside his apartment building. It turns out to be another pickpocket who soon becomes a sort of mentor for Michel. Before long the two have turned into three and the pickpocket gang is off to the train station to reap their wares in a classic montage of ingenious pickpocketing techniques.

I’ll admit, upon first viewing of this montage, while impressed by the content, I was somewhat resistant to the editing style Bresson employed. It felt foreign to me and after staying with it for a while, I began to realize that this was not your average montage. Bresson wanted it to be something that was outside the safe zones of film theory. Actually, the entire pacing of the film was unusual, and that is not to compare it to editing of today’s cinema, or even to say that it was “too slow” or the like. The best way to describe the feeling of viewing a Bresson film, is unique. I felt like he was trying to tell me things through certain images which maybe, in reality, had nothing to say at all! For example, you’ll notice many scenes in Michel’s apartment involve images of the door or the doorjamb or the door lock. This can lead the viewer to believe there is something maybe lurking in the apartment, or something outside the door, etc. But that seems to never be the case. It’s quite engaging actually.

Anyway, the best part of the film is when, after all their work in the train station, the other two men are caught and arrested. Again, Michel gets away. When he gets home though, he is faced with the detective who let him go last time he was caught. He tells Michel a story which brings his mother and his female counterpart, Jeanne, into the plot. It’s at this point when Michel takes off, leaving France for Italy and then England where he spends and undetermined amount of time pickpocketing and living a life of debauchery, before he returns “as if by accident” to the place he called home. (Hell, I’m pretty sure he’s even in the same suit as when he left.)

I won’t spoil the end here, but let’s just say that Bresson fits, in the space of ten minutes, an entirely new plot and storyline into this film which had been stringing us along ever so slightly in one direction the previous seventy. I love quotes, and Michel’s final line to Jeanne pretty much sums up the whole purpose of Bresson’s approach (and maybe even style), “Oh, Jeanne. To reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”

Salò Rears Its Facist Head

There was a time when the last film ever made by Pier Paolo Pasolini was considered depraved and shocking. That time was the 70s. Then the film found its way onto DVD (no less a Criterion edition) during the 90s. After a brief run of DVDs, Criterion lost the rights to the film and the disc went out of print. Once again, the film became depraved and shocking, but also rare and collectible! Bootlegs abounded and people were selling factory-wrapped editions for upwards of $1,000.

And as if that weren’t fascism in a juvenile form itself, Criterion not only restored the film (in all its vile glory), but is now re-releasing the film in an edition chock full with special features on the making and history of the film. What’s next, a Blu-ray edition to promote their new line? As a long time patron of Criterion, with over 400 of their DVDs alone in my collection, I have to admit, it irks me the way they re-issue their films so much.

I find it interesting as well that the DVD (which people were previously ready to pay one month’s rent for) is now retailing for $39.95, when if you stop and think about it, Criterion probably could have just made a Special Collector’s Limited Edition Numbered Box Set complete with a door-size poster, 5 full color lobby cards, a film cell from an original print and a maybe a replica of the infamous final scene’s binoculars with which to watch the 120th day of sodom safe in your non-BDSM living room. Had they went this route, I bet they could retail ’em at like $999.95 and still make a profit.