On DVD: Flight of the Red Balloon

I don't know what it's like for kids today, but when I was in elementary school, in the event of inclement weather or substitute teachers or what they now call "in-service days," we'd be herded into the cafeteria to watch a movie. As I learned later, the choices of films were limited to what was available from the school district's limited film library, and of those, they had to be short enough to hold our attention. This generally meant "educational" flicks about factories, 30-year-old Disney nature films, and the 1956 French short The Red Balloon.

The 34-minute classic (in case you managed to escape it during your own tortured childhood) is about a young boy who has this balloon that he's just crazy about. After his grandfather makes him let it go, that balloon proves to be weirdly sentient and, suffering from latex-based separation anxiety, follows the boy all over Paris. It won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. It's very French.

I think I must have seen The Red Balloon about 30 times between kindergarten and the sixth grade. Or maybe it just felt like it.

Dear lord, did I grow to loathe The Red Balloon.

The French-language Flight of the Red Balloon from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, released on DVD by IFC Films, takes the tedious, over-hyped short that was inflicted on schoolchildren like myself, and uses the whole balloon-tagging-along-after-a-kid motif to pull us into the lives of a boy named Simon (Simon Iteanu) and his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche). The difference here is that the boy isn't especially interested in the balloon. I had a similar reaction to most of the events in Hou's film.

It's not that Hou's story is without promise: Suzanne runs an experimental puppet theater (and really, almost any movie is made better with avant-garde puppetry) and is completely absorbed in her latest production. A young Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song) is working on -- surprise! -- a remake of The Red Balloon and helps Suzanne by acting as Simon's nanny. Meanwhile, Suzanne works on her puppet show and angsts about Simon's father, who left to write a novel in Montreal two years earlier and never came back. Oh, and she has to deal with a bad tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) in her apartment building.

Hou, who loves long, long, long takes, spends a lot of time letting us watch the mercurial, frazzled Suzanne, with both Simon and Song as outsiders looking in. Kind of like the balloon. Get it? As with all of Hou's pictures, there's an elegance and a loveliness to the imagery here, and his depiction of loneliness in a bustling city is well wrought. But ... so what? There's simply no meat to the tale, making it just a pretty, empty gesture from a director who's capable of brilliant works like The Flowers Of Shanghai. It's a disappointment, and a rather dull one at that.

Flight of the Red Balloon was commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the Musée d&rsquo Orsay, and perhaps that's the problem. Hou was charged with making a movie that showed off Paris first, and then built a movie around that idea. In interviews, he even admitted that he'd never spent any time in Paris when he took the job. The result is a "slice of life" movie that shows us Simon having a piano lesson, and Suzanne arguing with the tenant, and kids riding a merry-go-round, and the balloon re-appearing for no good reason outside the window and ... well, as I said, it all looks really pretty. It's just about as exciting as a stale baguette.

Personally, it didn't help that Hou based the movie on a film that I was subjected to so many times during my formative years that I now find the words "red balloon" to be on par with "trip to the dentist." Maybe if he'd used Charlie the Lonesome Cougar as his inspiration, I might have been more forgiving.

The DVD from IFC Films is a bare-bones affair, offering up a spotless, anamorphic widescreen transfer with gorgeous color saturation, making the most of Hou's admittedly excellent visuals. The Dolby 5.1 audio (French, with English and Spanish subtitles) is equally good. Other than trailers for other IFC releases, there are no extra features.

Dawn Taylor finds it interesting that the director of The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse, also invented the board game Risk, because both feel like they're never ... going to ... end.