Flight of the Red Balloon

binochesongAs Susanne, a voice-over actress who performs in French adaptations of Chinese puppet theatre, Juliette Binoche gives herself over completely in a refreshing, rigorous interpretation of the artist-at-work. She’s thrilling to listen to, then observe, as she becomes Mao Nu, a marionette with no head, no torso, only a pair of outstretched, flapping arms.

Mao Nu has shown up (or flown up) to advise a male puppet who labors to “boil the vast ocean dry” in a cauldron on the shore. He’s on his 4,622nd ladleful when she intervenes with a quicker method to drop the sea level by thousands of liters (and thereby defeat the Dragon King, who imprisons a damsel somewhere beneath the waters wide). Binoche vertiginously pitches her clarion inflections several octaves above Suzanne’s normal speaking range. The way that director Hou Hsiao-hsien films this—via medium wide-angle shots that show how Suzanne uses breath control while she remains seated, reading her part from sheets of paper on a music stand—allows us the joy of seeing one fully realized creation within another. And as if this weren’t generous enough, there’s equal space in the frame for the musician in the chair next to her, an accompanist who solos on bass clarinet, an aurally perfect low counterpoint to the alto heights Binoche scales with such assurance. At one moment in the rehearsal, Hou situates Suzanne’s son Simon and his au pair Song as silently watching from the wings. He casts them against a black screen on the left edge—Simon crouches, Song stands tall in this void of darkness—then Hou slowly eases the camera rightward back to Suzanne and the reed player, a gorgeous effect that’s ravishingly theatrical.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s European debut, which in itself makes the movie an event, succeeds in no small measure simply because Hou reveres tradition. Suzanne’s interests in puppetry aren’t treated satirically or viewed as “offbeat,” as they invariably might in American cinema. Hou honors the artist’s commitment to the unlikeliest pursuit, an integrity that’s underscored when Suzanne and Song attend a marionette workshop by an aged Chinese master named Ah Zhong, and there’s a breathtaking shot of French 20-somethings in rapt awe as this weathered old gentleman enacts a bit of his life’s work for them.

I haven’t always admired Hou’s filmmaking. I freely admit to being bored senseless by Flowers of Shanghai and The Puppetmaster. Good Men, Good Women showed a trace a wit, though not enough; then I found what I consider his breakthrough—the filmed in Japan Café Lumiere. The deep-focused long takes actually seemed to be probing some core issue in his heroine’s life, and of course, Café Lumiere was a lovely meditation on train travel, perhaps never more so than in the instant the male and female leads, without either noticing, whizzed past each other on parallel tracks. Hou followed this with the interminable Three Times, a torpid picture that felt derivative of Wong Kar Wai, minus the sensuous obsessiveness that’s made a couple of Wong movies (2046, Days of Being Wild) three-quarters bearable. With this homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 masterpiece The Red Balloon, however, Hou has both regained his footing and expanded on the promise of Café Lumiere in entirely unanticipated directions, a triumph owed to Binoche’s masterly improvisations as well as the faith and trust Hou places in her.


In the first of two lengthy near-soliloquies played into a cell phone, Suzanne’s frustration runneth over when her ex-lover finally accepts one of her calls. While her anger nominally concerns the no-account friend to whom her son’s father has sublet their downstairs apartment, Suzanne, who as we’ve seen is mainly married to her work, cries out, “I need a man beside me.” Hou takes a risk here. Suzanne’s seven-year-old enfant pipes up from the backseat of the car, “What about me? I’m not a boy or a little girl.” Never cute, always natural, Simon Iteanu’s performance adroitly relays childhood logic in all its naïve wonderment. Hou and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing shoot this scene under a scrim of sorts, filtering Binoche, Iteanu, and Song Fang by a windshield reflective of what must be a lead-gray Parisian sky—we perceive their figures dimly, if at all, as the anguish of the conversation comes through with undisguised clarity. There’s a sudden break in the weather, and the screen dazzlingly splits between a burst of sun on the left, affording us a glimpse of Suzanne getting her composure back, while a hazy, cumulous sheen blankets the rest.

Visually, there’s stunning compartmentalization throughout. Lee Ping Bing creates layers on top of layers in a shot of Simon playing pinball in a café. Diagonally striating the frame inside-outside-inside, Hou and his cameraman wedge the revolving blades of a ceiling fan high in the uppermost left-hand corner while a four- or five-story white building across the street dominates a wide central swath of screen, before its reflection in the window lapses (or melts away) into Simon on the upper and lower-middle right, absorbed in the flashing lights of the machine. I wish this composition were held a few seconds longer—to let our eyes take it in before the cut. Still later on the sidewalks of Paris, Hou introduces a carousel by the wafting shadows of the horses that spin in place—otherwise amorphous shapes given contour by the sunlight on the pavement.

Hou’s touch, in my experience, has rarely been lighter or more en pointe than in his exploration of Flight’s mother-son dynamic. “She’s probably tied up with her puppets,” young Simon offhandedly, innocently announces when Suzanne’s attorney Lorenzo, a fellow who wears an impossibly wrinkled white shirt with his pinstriped suit, shows up at their small apartment for a meeting and she isn’t there. (In one of the film’s many delightfully un-emphasized lifelike developments, Lorenzo pulls up a chair, joining Simon and Song for pancakes, which Song, a film student from Beijing, prepares in a state of somewhat flustered hesitation.) There’s a particularly well-observed crescendo and diminuendo of emotional rhythm when Suzanne blows into the apartment, on the heels of a shouting match with the downstairs subletter who’s stiffing her on the rent, to take a phone call from her daughter Louise, Simon’s much older half-sister. In telling Louise, “I have a few little problems. But that’s okay,” Binoche momentarily makes Suzanne’s financial misery laugh-out-loud funny. (Though it is difficult laughter.) After the conversation (as before, we’ve heard only Suzanne’s side) she says to her little boy, “Come and give me a hug.” He does so, and as Suzanne holds him, it’s all she can do to hold back the tears. We see it in her face, in her entire body as she trembles slightly. She releases him from her embrace, this little man who doesn’t know how much he means to her, and she’s relaxed and ready to go on. It is absolutely sublime—the range that Binoche takes Suzanne (and us) through in this one overlapping sequence. The narrow cramped interior, too, becomes a character in its own right: freighted with puppetry memorabilia; a mini-kitchen that never gets its own close-up; a flight of hefty, unguarded wooden steps up to Suzanne’s loft bedroom; a billowing curtain of red crepe that drapes the length of window to floor; and a stamp-sized table across which nearly every important exchange occurs. Yet it’s Binoche’s control as an actress—even the choice to wear her hair short and bleached in wild streaks of blonde—that makes Suzanne the liveliest, most well-rounded persona to inhabit a Hou film up to now.

songsimonAnd what of the red balloon itself? For Hou, it seems to represent the imagination, waiting to be reclaimed and exercised. In 1956, Lamorisse’s isolated little French boy, neglected by parents, bullied by other kids, needed that balloon—as a lifeline, as a kind of savior along the road to a fuller realization of self. Of what use is a red balloon to children a half-century onward, Hou suggests, who derive strength and contentment, as Simon does here, from a video game? And yet the red balloon still hovers by, just outside the apartment window, peering in, just outside the consciousness of a preoccupied child. Although Simon holds a red balloon as Song films him walking around the arrondissement, he apparently does so because he’s been instructed by Song for the effect that she, as a filmmaker, wants. It’s telling that Simon “sees” the red balloon, or begins to awaken to its possibilities, only after a docent on a museum tour describes a painting by using cinematic terms to explicate the painter’s technique—movie lingo being a necessary prerequisite for children of all ages to appreciate another art form. (!) My lone cavil with Flight of the Red Balloon is that we never learn who’s playing the piano. The most haunting solo refrain tolls on the soundtrack whenever the red balloon makes one of its solitary voyages. It’s the same piece of music that Simon tentatively works through during a piano lesson, and the slow turn of the camera even mimics the waltz time of the melody as Song listens to him practice from another room. But no soloist or recording appears listed among either the end credits or the press notes—it would be nice to give credit where credit is due. — NPT

April 24, 2008