Monday, March 10, 2008

French Film Festival 2

The French Film Festival has this year programmed four sessions for children:
  • Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon, 1956, Albert Lamorisse) + Crin-Blanc (White Mane, 1953, Albert Lamorisse)
  • Azur et Azmar (Azur & Azmar, Michel Ocelot)
  • La reine soleil (Princess of the Sun, Philippe Leclerc)
  • Pom, le poulain (POM, Olivier Ringer)

I have so far seen the first two on the list, don’t have the opportunity to see the third and plan to see the fourth next weekend. The ones I have seen have been truly amazing. Mathieu Ravier advised me that his opinion of Le ballon rouge is that it is “the best short film ever made. Full stop”. I’m not going to argue that, because I was similarly impressed (even if I wouldn’t repeat the claim, it’s a fair call). Running at 36 minutes, it didn’t seem like a short to me. Lamorisse was very clever in making it the length it is; it seems almost like a feature-length film, but it’s just the right length for what it depicts.

La ballon rouge uses so little dialogue that it’s like a silent film. There are maybe a hundred words in the whole film. It is visually stunning, with Paris depicted in mute tones and the balloon highlighted in a splendid red. The streets of Paris in the 1950s look fantastic, and the camera has documented the extraordinary ordinariness of the time: vehicles, carts, bicycles, people in the streets, buildings all look fantastic.

The real allure of the film is the central character: a young boy (played by Pascal Lamorisse, son of the director) and the large red balloon he finds on his way to school. The balloon is itself a central character, with a mind of its own. At first he escapes the boy and eludes recapture. But they bond and the balloon follows him, getting in and out of different quandaries together. The ending is very moving, both sad and uplifting (in more ways than one). This is one for both adults and children. We all loved it and look forward to seeing the feature-length modern rendition by Hou Hsiao Hsien, La voyage du ballon rouge (The Flight of the Red Balloon) which features Juliette Binoche.

Crin-Blanc screened with La ballon rouge. Pascal Lamorisse also has a small role as the infant while the main character (other than the horse, that is) is played by Alain Emery. It’s the story of a wild horse who eludes capture by the local horsemen but allows itself to be befriended by the boy, Folco. There really is a common thread running thematically between these two Lamorisse films.

I preferred La ballon rouge though my son was equally mesmerised byCrin-Blanc. Both are rated PG, though the latter probably requires a little more ‘parental guidance’ as there are a couple of spots where Crin-Blanc (the wild horse) gets aggressive. The films have a fairy-tale quality to them, yet rooted in realism and with a dark edge. This is something they share in common with my favourite children’s film, The Secret of Roan Inish.

Speaking of The Secret of Roan Inish, today we watched Azur et Asmar (Azur and Asmar), a film we missed the opportunity to see at last year’s MIFF. And what a film it is! Much better than what it looks from the promotional stills, this is the only film that for me comes close to Roan Inish and is perhaps on a par. I came out of the cinema stunned by the experience, which was shared by the rest of the family.

Like the above-mentioned films, it works as a kind of fairy tale. It has a timeless feel about the narrative, employing a number of old-fashioned visual and narrative devices, interwoven in a contemporary way that feels completely true to a traditional style yet relevant to now.

Visually, the film uses a number of animated devices, mostly two-dimensional with selective three-dimensional to highlight close-ups of faces. The three-dimensional CGI was used with restraint, mostly to highlight faces, and eyes in particular. Colours were used to spectacular effect, sometimes contrasting black and white with colour, other times contrasting bleak backgrounds while focusing on a bright subject. Much of the imagery seems to borrow from ancient shadow puppetry as used by the Greeks and Indonesians, though often attributed to the Chinese, but in a stunning contemporary manner.

The story is about a privileged French boy raised by his Arabic nanny who has a son of the same age. She treats them equally but chance separates the boys who are like brothers. Eventually they meet again as young adults in their quest for the Djinn fairy, which the nanny told them about as children. It’s a story of magic and brotherhood. It really has heart.

I found it curious that Azur et Asmar had only two screenings scheduled, and the session I attended (the second) was poorly attended. Most of the audience appeared to be French parents and their French-speaking children. The festival attracts so many packed sessions, and you’d think there’d be more cinephiles wanting to expose their children to world cinema. This is children’s cinema at its very best, so I find this disappointing indeed. If people don’t support diversity in cinema, we lose it.

There are no further screenings of Le ballon rouge + Crin-Blanc or Azur et Asmar. Flight of the Red Balloon has further screenings at Como on Wed 12 March at 6.45pm, Balwyn on Sat 15th at 4.15pm and Westgarth on Wed 19th at 9.30pm. It will be released in cinemas on 3 April.

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