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Review: "Flight of the Red Balloon" (Hou, France)

Daniel Kasman
Hou Hsiao-hsien once again travels abroad after his 2005 film Café Lumière, this time to France to pay homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 film The Red Balloon. The result, if one can imagine, is a film even more wisp-thin and delicate than Hou’s comparatively rich Japanese story, which was a lovely dual-portrait of young people connecting with their past and present in an urban environment at once familiar (to them) and unfamiliar (to the filmmaker). Hou narrows the focus and elides almost any trace of a plot for Flight of the Red Balloon despite expanding the number of characters to three: Parisian puppet vocalist Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), her son Simon (Simon Iteanu) and the boy’s new nanny, Song (Fang Song), a film student from Beijing. In honor of the film’s elliptical episodes, here is a descriptive analysis or review of Flight of the Red Balloon in similar fragments:
The obvious comparison for Flight of the Red Balloon is certainly Café Lumière, but it is remarkable in retrospect how strongly that film tried to slide into a Japanese milieu and catch as much as of the country as possible, if certainly as subtly as possible. It was a story about two Tokyo residents and specifically their relationship with their own city, but Paris does not function the same way in Flight of the Red Balloon, which among all of Hou’s films appears as the most abstracted from contemporary society and most fable like. Mark Lee Pin-bing’s camera captures all the familiar Hou compositions—trains, seemingly unstaged shots of street life, cafes, warmly lived-in interiors—but the feeling is that the city just happens to be Paris, yet the magic is that it does just happen to be Paris, effortlessly so. Instead of the film looking outward like Café Lumière, for his city dwellers to search their urban environments for solace, Hou’s French film looks inward to his three character’s intimate, allusive loneliness, which is underlined by the beautifully nonchalant setting. At ease with and unburdened by the grandeur of Paris, Simon, Suzanne, and Song seem to hang suspended in the city, an intangible feeling of drifting sadness Hou conjures that is obviously evoked literally by the titular balloon itself.
Despite the whimsy of a red balloon floating through Paris and following some of the film’s characters around, the movie is suffuse with loneliness, even if much of it is implied and flows from off-screen spaces. Song, despite being a long way from home, is the most assured of the trio, but her insular “d’accord”s and subtle lack of truly communicative scenes with Simon and Suzanne shifts her character into the background of the mise-en-scène and turns her individualism into a stalwart kind of isolation. Simon, though seemingly carefree, has a sister separated from him in Brussels who is seen in what could only be flashbacks to her summer Parisian visits with him. Suzanne, in a remarkable performance by Binoche, is strung out and frazzled by the energy needed for her unusual job, troubles with her flatmates, love for her son, separation from a man, and attempts to get her daughter to move in with her and Simon in Paris. Despite Suzanne’s often brazen unhappiness, the loneliness in Flight of the Red Balloon is of a most allusive quality because Hou is interested more in mood than in psychology; hints are given mostly in what Hou decides to leave out, as well as through subtle shifts in framing (often using reflections or glass refractions) and use of off-screen space. Suzanne’s search for documents about her apartment lease speaks less for her real feelings and character than the way one suddenly senses Suzanne’s anguish after work because Hou keeps her off screen as she talks to her neighbors, and then when Lee’s camera finally finds her we see that she is applying make-up but, from the angle, we are unable to see the reflection she is looking at.
From the slightly unnatural movement of the red balloon’s airy journey and Lee’s unusually stiff camera reframing even in the film’s first shot, to the three radically different performance styles and reactions to Hou’s open dramatic staging and semi-unwritten script, Flight of the Red Balloon may be the roughest and most ungainly of Hou’s films despite its quiet eloquence and humble beauty. Again, rather than locating disconnection in the outside world in which the characters live, these are internal problems, ones which the film formally takes on to make the story simultaneously more intimate, reflecting interior displacement and sorrow, while the diegesis becomes unnaturally open and we have access to this lucid, gentle sorrow, the seams of the film showing themselves to us to invite us further into these quiet slivers of life.
Fang Song, in a performance of remarkable, modest wholeness, despite playing the outsider fits smoothly into Hou’s direction and the film itself, and her movement in the background is usually of one at ease in the world (and film). The subtly affecting way she so naturally fits into the film and into Paris has Song become a barely noticed guide and steady heart for the two more distraught Parisians, and it may be the fact they fail to notice these characteristics that lends Song’s character her weight of sadness. Simon Iteanu seems to have problems with Hou’s open design and long takes, which results in both a spontaneity of reaction and also a kind of interiorization or passivity that would seem a little too thinly sketched if it weren’t for the sad mystery of his flashbacks with his sister in all their quotidian wonderfulness. Binoche is on a different wavelength from these two all together, a flurrying performance that seems to try to grapple with Hou’s slim scenario and generous technique with noise, action, and a suffusion of character detail (mostly involving the convolution of housing and romantic problems). A remarkable juxtaposition appears between Suzanne’s scenes at home just barely keeping herself together and her joyous narration of the Chinese puppet theatre which she not only jubilantly enjoys but also clearly has a mastery and control over compared to her home life.
We therefore have these three elements—Song’s solitary ease, Simon’s introversion and asynchronist delays in speech and action, and Suzanne’s basketcase—making their way around Hou’s frame, gradually defining themselves as much through their movements and dialog as through their apparent resilience to or immersion in Hou’s mise-en-scène. Jump cuts inside scenes and the surprisingly lack of smoothness in Lee’s camera (not to mention a large number of shots where buses or cars seem to block the camera’s view) takes this dynamism to a formal level of subtle awkwardness, as if the film itself is uncertain how to see and understand these three people at once, and their mere existence in the same city at the same time, let alone in the same wonderful spaces (the puppet theatre, a train, Suzanne’s apartment, parks, cafes), even if irreconcilable, becomes something special and lovely in and of itself.
Fault the ease of Mark Lee Pin-bing’s camerawork as one may, there is no doubt his photography in the film is as exquisite as always, ranging from the deep, theatrical shadows of the puppet theatre to the blue-gray clarity of Hou’s street scenes that seem to get more documentary-like with each film. More than anything else in a picture so slim in its dramatic scenario, it is the qualities of light that speak so eloquently, an emphasis on the use of shadow and light as something as perhaps more important than drama, psychology, or thematics. Although one might immediately assume the red balloon has a symbolic burden in the film, in fact this couldn’t be farther from the truth and one must instead look at the simple vibrancy of its color against the lucid but plain colors of Hou’s Paris to catch it allusive tonal quality, one expressed almost entirely through the play of color and light. Likewise, in a scene where Suzanne gives a visiting Chinese puppetmaster a meaningful postcard from her childhood, the written psychological poignancy is brilliantly usurped by the staging of the scene in a train cabin. One is less impressed with Suzanne’s somewhat ordinary pronouncement of the card’s importance and meaning in her life than the aspect of her face as she leans back in her seat to consider the memory, the glaring light from the window bleaching her face out when suddenly passing obstructions register a flushed pattern of shadows across her face—light as emotion, as character, as the film itself.
For an art-house director who is sublimely unpretentious and whose simplicity reaches a new minimalism in Flight of the Red Balloon, it comes as a surprise how directly reflexive Hou’s new film is. It’s not just the somewhat incongruous profession of Suzanne of working with Chinese puppets, it is also in Song’s visiting filmmaker (making a student film homage to The Red Balloon with Simon in it!), and Suzanne’s 8mm footage of her grandfather, calling to mind Hou’s inspiration from Li Tianlu in a film like The Puppetmaster, showing a puppet to Simon’s sister. Stepping back from the script, one also sees Hou and Lee make a motif of shooting through glass windows and off of reflections, a technique whose meaning could range from the obvious (isolation of the characters and the filmmaker’s distance from his subjects and setting) to poetic (the blending and merging of visual planes so that off-screen blends with on-screen, inside with out). Combining these two tendencies, the film’s low-key finale includes with a shot of Félix Vallotton’s painting “The Balloon” where the camera racks focus between the painting and catching the reflection in its glass of Simon and his schoolmates looking at it. This may be the closest Hou will ever get to the more overt meaning-making of most art-films, where Suzanne’s puppetry can be seen as linked to the puppetry of the red balloon (which, like the camera, moves as often gracefully as it does unnaturally) and Song’s explanation that, at least in her short film, a man who will be digitally erased later controls the movement of the balloon. These forms of control (Simon too seeks control, playing videogames, using Song’s camera, and is a pinball junkie) contrasts with Hou’s loose and easy style, as well as a narrative structure that, like the films of Maurice Pialat, feels built out of a much larger filmed story that has been purposefully whittled down and elided to result in, for Pialat, long snatches of intensity, and in Hou’s case mostly the languorous moments between intensity, the everyday moments.
Yet, remarkably, the film manages to combine these two tendencies of elliptical cinema in its most devastating scene, as well as the film’s emotional and formal centerpiece, a single shot that is breathtaking in its combination of the sudden, wrenching visibility of Suzanne’s openness along with the typical passivity of the other characters. In a long take we watch Song lead a blind piano tuner into the family’s small apartment while Simon plays videogames and Song watches from afar. Suzanne storms in halfway through an argument, gets handed the phone by her son and receives devastating news from her daughter all the while the tuner is plinking in the background. But strangely Suzanne seems calmed by talking to her daughter despite the news, and she ropes Simon into a conversation about his day at school which he answers with understandable boredom but which Suzanne is clearly eats up as a loving parent. Through this shot we literally watch an emotional trainwreck melt into parental bliss by watching an acting powerhouse settle into the rhythm of Hou’s languorous staging and become at ease in the space. As Binoche warms Suzanne to the voices and touch of her children, and Song’s off-camera presence presides as the tuner scores the scene with fragments of music, the film becomes flush with a momentary triumph of character, a release from a desire to control and finds joy in a simple pleasure, a simple presence, a lovely mood.


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