Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Return of the Red Balloon

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) is a wonderful homage to the classic French children’s film Le Ballon Rouge (Albert Lamorisse, 1956), and perhaps also to film critic André Bazin, who analyzed and investigated the film thoroughly in his essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, celebrating it for its serene editing and absence of what he considered mere film tricks. And while Hou makes a bow to both Lamorisse and Bazin, it is anything but a kowtow, as he breaks loose from his influences and transfers the story and technique of Le Ballon Rouge into another world and another Paris, where aesthetic delicacy and suggestiveness gets to play the main parts.

As in Le Ballon Rouge, Flight of the Red Balloon explores the symbolic “friendship” that evolves between a small boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), and a red balloon that tags along and seems to watch over him in the streets of Paris. The Paris Simon lives in, is not so much a world of innocence and adventure as in Le Ballon Rouge. Instead, Simon finds himself trapped in the hectic world of more or less neglecting adults, with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) a struggling puppet master who is trying to do a thousand things at once, the unruly downstairs neighbors, his absent father and sister, and his new Chinese nanny and film student, Song (Song Fang).

Song starts making a film about Simon and a red balloon, and this is the event that ties together the film of Lamorisse, the pretext for Flight of the Red Balloon, with the text of Hou’s film, via the meta-film that Song and Simon are making, and together they constitute a bundle of balloons which takes on different meanings or non-meanings in their various contexts. In Flight of the Red Balloon, the balloon, which most often pops up in Song’s film, but sometimes ambiguously independent of her filming, is like an element from a magic realism novel, a prosopopoeial element that can be taken to signify everything Simon wants and needs but doesn’t have enough of, everything his mother doesn’t have the capacity to give him at this moment in her life. This magical and mystical element of the film is intriguingly combined by Hou with a quotidian realism that dominates most of the film, as the narrative plays out in the streets of Paris and Suzanne’s apartment, where Song and Simon makes crêpes, plays video games, takes naps, only to be interrupted by Suzanne and her fits of anger and despair. Suzanne is a ticking bomb that goes off all the time, greatly contrasted with the calm Song and the shy Simon. As always, Juliette Binoche’s acting performance is fantastic, and her Suzanne is always interesting and complex in all of her irrationality, earnestness and incapacity of hiding her feelings, perfectly balanced against Song and Simon’s mysterious quietude.

The dialogue in the film is for the most part improvised, and for French speakers, this can be an element of irritation, as flatness and repetition and a lack of words makes the film a bit flawed. Especially Song’s vocabulary is monotone, and even if she is an exchange student in a foreign country, her performance seems a bit static as she basically repeats the same sentences over and over. Binoche of course has a greater repertory, and is carrying an enormous burden in that she is the only character in the film that actually speaks more than a few sentences, in fact she talks almost non-stop, making her performance even more impressive, even if her frustration in her search for words becomes evident every now and then.

If Hou follows Bazin’s recipe in his cinematographic language, he rebels against it through the character of Song and the film she is making about the red balloon, as Song reveals in a conversation with Simon that they are going to “edit out” the green guy who holds the balloon, in post-production, so that the balloon will seem as if it has a will and life on its own. Bazin would probably not have appreciated such an approach to filmmaking, as one of the elements he so valued with Le Ballon Rouge was that it didn’t pull any cinematic tricks on its audience. And even if Hou has Song discuss this opportunity in the film, he stays close to a very pure cinematic language himself, with many long takes and a camera that follows his characters around in a room or the streets, not relying on what Bazin might have considered manipulative editing.

What makes Flight of the Red Balloon such a good film is its mélange of symbolism and realism, as the two elements are in constant contrast and dialogue. In the film’s final scene, the two elements are finally and gracefully brought together at the Musée D’Orsay, where Simon together with his classmates makes an effort to understand a painting by Félix Vallotton, Le Ballon, and where the meaning of the red balloon of Hou’s film is hinted at, but still left largely unanswered for the audience to ponder upon.

by Maria Fosheim Lund


Anonymous said...

For some reason, this review made me think of how Bazin might respond to Hou Hsiao-hsien's entire oeuvre.

Great review. I absolutely love Hsiao-hsien and look forward to watching this film.

Maria Fosheim Lund said...

Thank you very much!

I think a "Bazinian" reading of Hou could be very fruitful, and you could probably understand both in new ways through it...

I also thought of Swedish and Norwegian filmmakers like Roy Andersson ("Songs from the Second floor") and Bent Hamer ("Kitchen Storis")and their aesthetics when I saw this film, and how Bazin would probably have been very delighted with their "honest" camerawork and editing...

Brandon Colvin said...

Well done! I hope this film comes around where I can see it.

Lucky New Yorker so-and-sos.

Maria Fosheim Lund said...

Thank you, Brandon!

Why live anywhere else if you can live in New York, right?

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you have IFC and TCM on-demand, you can do a double-header of the original Le Ballon Rouge and Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, as those two networks are allowing viewers to view these films back-to-back. My partner and I are planning on making a date of the double-feature quite soon, actually.

(Though, in all honesty, it feels weird to watch a movie with Juliette Binoche again, since I swore never to see another one of her movies after the mild trauma of The English Patient...)

Brandon Colvin said...

By the way, congrats on your wildly successful thesis defense, Chuck!

You are now a man of cinematic precedent at WKU.

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha. Thanks. I'm just thankful that I am allowed to sleep again.