Flight of the Red Balloon


Flight of the Red Balloon is one of

those movies where nothing much happens. It’s a simple, relatively

peaceful film, notable in part because director Hou Hsao-Hsien is shooting outside Asia for the first

time. Hou’s starting point–dictated by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay, which commissioned the film–is La Ballon Rouge, the 1956

Albert Lamorisse film about a little boy and his companion in the streets of

Paris, a floating red balloon.

Hou’s on-screen surrogate for his entree

to Western filmmaking is Song, a

Chinese film student in Paris working as a nanny to a young boy, Simon.

(She’s also shooting a movie on the streets of Paris involving a red

balloon, and has Simon take part.) Simon’s

mother is Suzanne, played with great eccentricity and anxiousness by

Juliette Binoche, sporting a shock of blond hair atop an intense,

friendly but largely unhappy face. Suzanne works in a puppet theater (a

fairly explicit reference to one of Hou’s previous films, The

Puppetmasters) and lives alone with Simon in a cluttered

apartment. The place downstairs is hers, too, but the tenants–friends of her estranged husband–have stopped paying rent. She’s

eager to throw them out not only because she expects her older

daughter will soon need a place to stay in Paris, but also because

the couple is, to her mind anyway, ill-mannered, untidy, and


That’s it in a nutshell. Working to some degree in improvisational mode, Hou doesn’t

generate a lot of narrative, but his images–emphasizing the quality of

light passed through windows, or reflected in glass–are masterful and

riveting. At times the visual strategy reminded me of Kieslowski, but

then there’s something less structured and more free about Hou’s

style. Kieslowski’s French-language films were insistent in their

beauty, aggressive in their mystery. But nothing in Red Balloon

feels especially calculated, or even pre-meditated. Instead, Hou pulls

off the illusion that he’s just working the camera and the screen space

verité-style, trying to get the

best angle on Suzanne’s unfolding personal crisis, on Simon’s young

sense of

wonder, on Song’s tranquil face, lurking around the margins of every

scene, sometimes with a camcorder in hand–as always, the

filmmaker as tourist, spectator and eavesdropper. She’s also a

surrogate mother here: she’s shooting a film, on DV, about a red

balloon floating through the streets of Paris, and she has involved

Simon in the picture.

A quick glance around the net shows that

many viewers have been frustrated, angered even, by the film’s

languors. I can understand that it would seem little more than a pretty, exceptionally well-crafted trifle if

not for

the presence of Binoche, whose single mom is a credible, sympathetic

creation. It’s a

wholly un-selfconscious performance that sneaks up on you until Hou

and Binoche both let ‘er rip in a couple of key scenes where Suzanne

jabbers helplessly into her cell phone–that symbol of

simultaneous connectivity and disconnectedness–her feelings of

lonesomeness and abandonment palpable enough almost to transform Red

Balloon into tragedy.

But then there’s Simon, learning piano


growing street-smart, building up his understanding of the world

around him even as he wonders at the benevolence of the bright red

balloon that appears to him through a skylight in the film’s

concluding scene. For the balloon’s continued presence, he must have

Song to thank; she delivered an element of magic that Suzanne was

unequipped to provide. It’s a wonder that Suzanne surely

understands–she seems like the type to remember what it felt like to be

a child–even if she’s at an age where she knows a bit too much about

how the world works to share in that wonder. Flight of the Red Balloon is a little bit

happy and a little bit sad, a high-angle view on childhood in the

sunlight and adulthood in the shadows, with the much-longed-for consummation of the heart’s yearnings

floating on the breeze just out of reach.

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