French Film Festival

by by Chloe Malle

Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge
Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge, or The Flight of the Red Balloon, is Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-Hsien's first foray into foreign territory. However, the French-language film, shot entirely on location in Paris with a French cast and crew, manages to retain Hou's characteristic sensitivity, spinning an elegant study of isolation and postmodern drift.

Song, a young expatriate film student from Beijing, begins to babysit for Simon (Simon Iteanu), the reflective seven-year-old whose harried single mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), is too busy rehearsing for a puppet show to care for Simon after school. Early on in the film, Song gingerly asks Simon whether he has ever seen a movie called The Red Balloon and then spends the remainder of the film making her own movie about a red balloon with her camcorder. Her film acts as a discreet foil to the more abrasive narrative of Simon's and Suzanne's fissured home life. An uncharacteristically blonde Binoche, with deceptive cleavage and outlandish clothing, excels in her turn as a hysteric harridan of a mother trying to navigate the pressures and demands of single motherhood.

Commissioned as the first film in a series funded by Paris's Musée d'Orsay, Voyage is a diaphanous but finely rendered homage to Albert Lamorisse's beloved postwar short Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon). Hou filters the child's perspective of Lamorisse's film through the pensive gaze of Song's lens. Song's perspective is implicitly Hou's own; they are both foreigners in Paris and filmmakers exploring the intersections and divergences between Lamorisse's approach to the children's tale and their own.

The film's unhurried opening sequence, which calmly follows the meandering journey of the itinerant balloon in and out of several modes of Parisian transportation, yields to the dark interior of Suzanne's playhouse, bobbing marionettes casting Caravaggio-caliber shadows. Suzanne frantically personifies her puppet's character, crying, "I must find her, I must find her"--just as we, trapped in the dark puppet interior, must find the lost balloon.

Hou and his regular director of photography, Mark Pin Bing, manipulate the camera and characters like the marionettes Suzanne gives voice to, delicately navigating the narrative through a complex intertwining of the different strands that shape the lives of individuals. Like the Calder mobile hanging in Suzanne's apartment, the camera alternately dips and rises, catching the characters at various crossroads.

The titular balloon, a perfect vermillion orb, coasts sporadically throughout the film, descending like the Holy Spirit upon uncertain Haussmann rooftops, guiding the narrative. Challenging Plato's claim that perfect forms cannot be seen in daily life, the balloon, both ideal and intelligible, dances across the Parisian skyline. And while the film is explicitly an homage to Lamorisse's film, Voyage can also be viewed as an interpretation of the Allegory of the Cave. The cave's statues and shadows are deftly recreated in the puppet playhouse and Suzanne's cramped, warmly lit apartment. The ascension into the intelligible realm of daylight is exemplified by the headstrong balloon, hovering, peeking inside and knocking against the windowpanes.

Like other Hou films, Voyage experiments with a double narrative, a Russian nesting doll of fiction within fiction. Like his 1995 film Good Men, Good Women, which follows the story of an actress in her real life paralleled with the life of the character she plays in a film, Voyage challenges traditional narrative structure by acknowledging the subject of the film within the film. Several moments in the film expressly unmask the fiction. At one point, Hou deliberately dispels the film's digital illusion when Song explains to Suzanne that when filming the balloon, she dresses the person holding the balloon all in green because the color can be erased digitally, making it appear to be floating.

Like the prisoner who escapes the cave, we are privy to the different levels of perception through the different representations of the balloon. We see phantoms of the balloon in Song's film, the Calder mobile, the balloon's shadow on the apartment wall, the gold rings of a merry-go-round--chased, like the balloon itself, by children--and the impressionist painting of a red ball at the Musée D'Orsay.

In the final scene, filmed at the Musée D'Orsay, Simon and his classmates examine the Felix Vallotton painting Le Ballon (The Ball or The Balloon). Like the final doll in the narrative nesting series, this painting acts as a surface summary of the film's plot--a boy or girl chases a red balloon while two adults, "her parents" or "ghosts" as the children suggest, watch in the shaded distance. "Is this a happy picture or a sad one?" the curator asks. "Both," the children reply, "because it is both sunny and shaded." The curator continues, "Where is the painter? Where is he watching from?" "En haut" they all respond--from above. The camera pans upward, revealing that the auteur is indeed above, skimming the museum skylight above the children's heads. Gliding away from the window with the camera behind it, the balloon leads the audience over rooftops and into the sky, concluding the film as it began--an unhurried elegy to the lonely, too fragile to touch.CM

The young female drug runner sits in the businessman's office. Their relationship is over, or so he'd like to believe. He says, "Remember that weekend when we went away and we made up a little game? You said you'd be my slave." She hikes up her skirt and starts to play with herself. "Say the word 'slave' again," she tells him. He pauses. "Slave."

This is one of two scenes that elevate Boarding Gate, a sweet-'n-sour cocktail the likes of which is rarely served. Sometimes Gate sprints breathless; other times it lingers over human perversion. The film shows shootouts in Hong Kong and switchblades in Paris, but it is at its best when it lets its two main characters loose upon each other in a room. Godard once said--or, at any rate, should have--that the history of cinema is of faces and voices. Gate has two of the most distinctive of each in recent film.

The rich man Miles's face and voice belong to American actor Michael Madsen. Madsen burst onto the scene in 1992's Reservoir Dogs, in which he sliced off a cop's ear while singing a pop song; his last notable roles came in Sin City and the Kill Bill movies. Madsen's gaze rarely wavers, nor does his voice rise above a pebbly purr--his characters are often crazy, but calm. Like fellow square-headed actor Michael Rooker, Madsen is too dangerous for American movies. Only Tarantino will give him good parts.

On the table sits Sandra, played by Asia Argento, also seen in this year's festival in Breillat's The Last Mistress. Argento, best known in America for her role in xXx, is the daughter of Italian horrormeister Dario; with her pale skin, hooded eyes and perpetual sneer, she looks like she belongs in a horror movie herself. Her English is so clipped that "hello" sounds threatening. Tattoos cover her body, and her nude scenes are among the film's few predictable moments.

Gate's plot details Sandra's involvement in a double-cross scheme planned by her current boyfriend (Carl Ng). Its heart lies in a long scene in which she goes to visit Miles at his home. We get handcuffs, asphyxiation and a hint of betrayal while she alternates between demanding passion and cash. Madsen and Argento seem like a lunatic pairing, but that's why they work well together--he's benevolent-violent, she's crazy-vulnerable. The scene ends with a twist that, though surprising, takes some of the juice out of the movie's latter half. The film begins to tighten around Sandra. Writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Clean) is adept with gritty stories involving women in trouble, but he has to work harder whenever he separates his leads. Yet, though much of its acting is flat and its dialogue wooden, the film is worthwhile for the star pairing alone.

Assayas litters Gate with violence and turbo-charges it with sex: a gun is as much of a phallus as anything, and even the film's title is a double entendre. Boarding Gate finally comes close to a good old trashy B-movie. If it were an American film, it would play at drive-ins; because it's a French film, it closes the festival. Say what you want about mixing high art and low art, but the festival programmers made a half-decent choice.AC

Les Temoins, or The Witnesses, directed by Andre Techine, documents the bewildering onset of the AIDS crisis circa 1984 among a rather incestuous group of Parisian friends. They encounter the disease for the first time when the wildly attractive young Manu, who has just moved to Paris, becomes infected. Manu comes to be involved with Adrien, a gay older doctor who becomes masochistically infatuated with him. But by the time his symptoms develop, Manu is already entangled in a loaded web of sexual relations that encompasses the heterosexual open marriage of Adrien's friends Sarah and Mehdi, the platonic yet creepy relationship between Manu and Adrien and the torrid homosexual affair between Manu and Mehdi, one of those cops who is 200 percent straight. Part I, called "Happy Days, 1984," is loaded with bold color--bright pink walls in Sarah's apartment, the yellow flannel that Manu wears throughout and endless sunlight--that captures the intensity of feeling of the era. The tension created by the overload of color in Part I perfectly embodies the lack of inhibition in the pre-catastrophe world; it also foreshadows the tragic repercussions of such intensity, revealed in the dimly lit struggle of Part II, "The War."

The film's conceptual strength is its communication of the deeply rooted ambiguity at the heart of such a struggle. No character's reaction to the diagnosis is ethically irreproachable, nor totally unsympathetic--even Manu's golden-boy energy and good looks in Part I are mediated by an off-putting narcissism and snarky smile that prevent him from becoming a tragic hero. (As one of my friends put it, he's kind of sketchy and only has one shirt.) Adrien, meanwhile, comes into his own in Part II as a leading AIDS researcher in charge of Manu's treatment, but his questionable motivations, incited by the need to preserve control over Manu, complicate this altruism.

There's something a little too neat about the relationship setup, of course, which manages to throw in every type of character and relationship to somehow incorporate each possible demographic affected by the AIDS crisis into the film's six-person plot. Their relationships with one another are effectively played out, however, while the film reserves judgment. In bearing witness to the crisis in this way, the film makes its own suggestion for how traumatic events should be represented, while it acknowledges the inherent problems of this process. The ethical dimension of representation is most explicitly at issue in Sarah's decision to incorporate Manu's story into her novel, a narrative that she sees as her testimony to the event and that Mehdi calls rape--referring, we surmise, to the damage that would be done by its representational inaccuracy.

The problem of witnessing, as the film puts forth, is a lack of objectivity that is still at work in our reception of the AIDS crisis. It's bewildering to watch a historical account of the gradual onset of AIDS--the film does this well, showing excerpts from a PowerPoint lecture made by Adrien about the disease as well as televised accounts of its growing statistics in the United States--when the effect of this trauma on the cultural consciousness remains in many ways unexplained and unacknowledged. What the film bears witness to is not only the inescapable ambiguity of witnessing, but also a certain resistance to bearing witness, a failure it makes clear is innate to human nature.TS