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 Bakery Girl From Monceau

The first film by Eric Rohmer that I ever saw was Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak from 1951 and I got a big kick out of it. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve always liked the idea of a woman who would just fry up a steak for herself on a whim. Granted, the steak in question looked a little tough – maybe a bad cut – but it’s the principle, really. Other than that I’m not sure what drew me to the film or made me like it, I’ve thought about it for a while now, but then I figured it out when I watched Rohmer’s 1963 film featuring friend and producer (turned director) Barbet Schroeder, The Bakery Girl Of Monceau. (Interesting note: the voiceover for Schroeder’s part is actually done by another director you may have heard of, Bertrand Tavernier).

The women in these films are strong, opinionated, and not overtly attractive. I like that they aren’t afraid to do what they want and how they’re magnificently polar from any American cinema woman of the same time. These are not housewives to be, they’re not even steady girlfriends to be, yet they’re so engaging, honest, interesting and inviting that it’s no wonder men go out of their way to get their attention. 

Schroeder, in Monceau, plays a law student who is woefully attracted to a dark-haired woman he passes on the street. Like any likable, self-respecting, sensitive male, (you never see those in movies anymore, right?) he can’t bring himself to talk to her. Instead, plans another “chance” encounter by frequenting the spot where he saw her that day. But the courage/opportunity still has not presented itself. In an effort to both give himself something to do and not looking completely like he’s stalking this woman, he ducks into a little bakery on the corner every day after his “chance” encounter.

It’s obvious how this triangle comes into focus, when the more opportunity he has to get to know someone, instead becomes the girl at the bakery counter – who may as well be an angel, she’s backlit so beautifully. Eventually, though he talks to the woman on the street, but then never sees her again. It’s during this time that his relationship with the bakery girl has every chance of survival, but as he says himself in his narration, he still longs for the girl he can’t have. 

This concept of chance encounters that Rohmer puts into play in a number of his films, is something that excites me as a filmgoer. Stories with strangers are always ripe for intense and/or problematic situations to arise. At the end of the film, Schroeder has finally convinced the young girl at the bakery to go out on a date with him, she makes no promises, of course. Conveniently, the conflict occurs when on the night of his date, he runs into none other than the dark-haired stranger right outside the bakery.

Confessing that she’s been spying on him all the time that he’s been devouring the inventory at the store, because she lives in one of the apartments just across the street, seems almost to good to be true. It’s the great thing about Rohmer’s characters – she’s turned out to be just like him.

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.

An Education

An Education is a film that tries to be powerful by not overtly being powerful, and I like that about it. I do think, however, that somewhere along the line the message it’s trying to send gets lost in the naïve fun we’re allowed to have while traveling with our characters. The director Lone Scherfig feels fresh this time around, even though this is by no means her first effort. Many of her work are of the Danish variety, but her last “US” film (if you can call it that) was the drop-deadpan funny Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. An Education is not quite on those same lines, instead dealing with familial relationships in a superbly understated time warp.


Everything about the film tricks you and works around your common sensibilities. Scherfig and author-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby work hard to make the obvious sneak up on the audience when they actual expect it to happen. Its masterful storytelling in a filmic sense when in reality Scherfig and Hornby know that their audience is intellectual more than likely. They are not going to be easily put upon; they know something is set to happen, and only will be validated in their knowing when the filmmakers’ decide it so. I love that kind of power and confidence in a filmmaker.

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.”

Mister Lonely

What makes someone want to be an impersonator? Well, director Harmony Korine doesn’t actually ever answer that question, but instead paints his usual tableau of paper-thin characters, playing deeply-affected characters. Korine’s collage of personalities on film is best depicted through his earlier work like Gummo and Julian Donkey-Boy, but he does get a few things right in his latest addition to his absurdist dramedy series.


Told in four “parts,” all named after Michael Jackson songs:

Man In The Mirror
Beat It
Thriller
You Are Not Alone

the film follows the life of a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who living in France is struggling to find himself and at the same time find work. One day while performing (not Michael Jackson songs, mind you) at an assisted living home, another impersonator, Marilyn Monroe (played rather unconvincingly by the usually fabulous Samantha Morton), spots him and later she tells him about a retreat her and her family have created in Scotland where celebrity impersonators can live in peace and tranquility.

All is not as good as it seems though when Monroe returns home with the new friend. Soon the sheep on the land have all become infectious and must be put down, which quickly sours the mood of life and escapism. Along with that, Monroe’s husband Charlie Chaplin (channeling Adolf Hitler at times, and played by the TOKYO! deviant Denis Levant), indulges his jealous fantasies of his wife and Jacko cheating on him behind his back.

Other impersonators at the retreat include:

The Three Stooges
Queen Elizabeth
The Pope (no idea which one)
Abe Lincoln (if Abe Lincoln had a foul-mouth)
Sammy Davis, Jr.
James Dean
Shirley Temple
Little Red Riding Hood
Buckwheat (who has a fetish with chickens, this I could have done without); and,
Madonna

Eventually, in a sort of celebration for the lives of their slain sheep, the gang builds a performance hall on the property and stages a variety show of sorts for which they tout “the greatest show on Earth.” It’s anything but, but is also the only time we see them becoming something that they are really not: comfortable in themselves.

Specifically, for me, I was more affected by the separate story line involving a (not-surprisingly) wonderful Werner Herzog as a priest. When one of his nuns accidentally falls out of a plane, while dropping food rations over an impoverished village, she frantically prays to God to save her and give her the ability to fly on her way down. Well, God doesn’t grant her wish to fly, but when she plummets into the ground below, she does jump right back up again without merely a scratch.

Korine comes back to this separate story line intermittently, but there appears to be little cohesion between the two competing stories. True to life, Marilyn Monroe commits suicide (by hanging herself, albeit), much to the dismay of her husband Chaplin and her wanna-be lover Jackson. Chaplin seemed to become more an impersonation of Hitler when alone with Marilyn on the retreat, but then really none of the characters ever truly seem to inhabit their celebrity doppelgangers. Instead, they seem more comfortable in the disguises while remaining their own individual selves.