Just watched Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s wonderful film, The Flight of the Red Balloon. Set in a glowing, shadowy, geometric and abstract Paris, it stars Juliette Binoche as Suzanne, and Simon Iteanu as her son Simon. Simon’s nanny, a young film student from China, is played by Song Fang. I’m not sure who plays the red flotation device.
The film is a homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon, but doubles and echoes and adds new layers. The nanny shoots film footage in Paris, incorporating her new charge, Simon, and his hovering red friend and we see both the internal and the external. We watch the film within the film and think about what that hovering balloon may be pointing to. The freedom, the joy, the hope of childhood and the things we can’t reach.
Nearly every frame is an abstract painting in and of itself. Hou utilizes interiors with precision, throwing rectangles, squares and diagnonals constantly against each other to great effect. He is a master with glass and mirrors, doubling what we see, adding depth, juxtaposing more stories within stories.
All of this is subtle in the best way. Non-contrived, unselfconscious, natural.
There is not much plot. Suzanne works in a puppet troupe, doing all of the voices, and Binoche makes this look easy and real, a true part of her reality. Simon and Song spend their days together, when he’s not in school, getting to know each other little by little, warming up to each other with few words and small gestures. The only real conflict of the movie is that between Suzanne and one of her tenants, Marc (Hippolyte Girardot), who apparently hasn’t paid rent in a year or more. This conflict gives Binoche the chance to contrast her obvious calm and quiet devotion to her son, with a ferocity toward others she thinks are out to take advantage of her. It is a rare film that can make every day life, without heightened melodrama, something you want to wait for, follow, and focus on.
One of my favorite parts of the movie is the scene in which Simon’s class visits the Musee d’ Orsay and stops to talk about Félix Vallotton’s Le Ballon.
I loved how the teacher was able to get the children to discuss the painting, discover some of its hidden qualities, and talk about light and shadow. Initially caught up by the discussion, Simon soon spies his red balloon floating high overhead, leans back, and follows its flight with the faintest look of joy and pride. If I had made this emotionally rich though understated film, I would be full of joy and pride as well.