I’ve been reviewing films for Pajiba for over a year and have yet to unleash an unqualified rave on any of the movies I’ve been assigned. That’s not to say I haven’t reviewed some good ones, or held back recommendations, but even the better (new) movies I’ve written about weren’t perfectly in tune with my criteria for Outstanding Fucking Film. None of them left me with that buoyancy we feel when we’ve been embraced by a movie and witnessed something special. And not that I haven’t seen any Outstanding Fucking Films this past year; it just happened that the movies that enchanted me were reviewed by one of my colleagues, or not reviewed on Pajiba at all. Until I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon this past Saturday, I always left the theater a smidge dissatisfied with the flicks I’ve had to write about, and I recommended even the better ones with some light finicking. I may have had a good time, or appreciated a movie’s overall result, but nothing poked my innermost squee button. You know the euphoria I’m taking about. It’s what I felt after seeing The Celebration and Maelström and The Limey and Mulholland Drive and Touching the Void and Grindhouse and No Country For Old Men, and flying home on no-reservation elation, and wanting to share that elation with anyone who’d listen. I’ve been waiting a year to elate about a new movie at those of you who honor me with your Pajibattention. Flight of the Red Balloon has — finally — given me lift-off.
To put it another way, Flight of the Red Balloon is the first new movie I’ve reviewed in which I wouldn’t change a gorram thing. It’s as perfect as an egg and as self-contained as an ecosystem. It has fathoms of feeling but no sentiment, no pre-digested platitudes (however much its title may suggest otherwise). It’s dangerously absorbing. It takes risks in its crafting that pay off, particularly with its static long takes and its meandering camera, which pushes across skies and walls and city streets like a bulldozer shoving aside debris to clear a path towards wisdom. These favorite Hou techniques serve the story well, which was partly inspired by a classic film short called The Red Balloon, directed by Albert Lamorisse in 1956. Flight of the Red Balloon — which finally hits North American screens more than a year after premiering in France — builds on Lamorisse’s image of a balloon trailing a lonely Parisian boy. But Hou’s balloon is more thematic frame than focus, and his film intentionally strays in tone from the tone of its inspiration (one is fantasy, the other is starkly realistic). Hou’s balloon isn’t the narrative meat; what makes his film substantial and arresting is the interaction between Song, a film student (Fang Song), Suzanne, a puppeteer (Juliette Binoche), and Simon, Suzanne’s patient little son (Simon Iteanu). While the world is made up of two kinds of movie-goers — those who can watch long takes of a floating balloon and those who would rather pull their toenails out by the roots than do so — the titular balloon really is the least of it. It comes and goes around the people, their dialogue and their intercourse, which do most of the work here, and which take up most of the screen time.
The first half of the film is preoccupied with Song’s introduction to Suzanne and Simon, and her first day as Simon’s new nanny. Anyone who accuses this movie of not having any action isn’t looking closely enough. As Song learns her way around Simon’s after-school routine and Suzanne’s apartment, the multiple dimensions of new relationships tumble off the screen. Song enters Suzanne’s tight frazzled world with a shy kind of pluck that helps her take things as they come in stride. A series of awkward social moments entrap the characters and enrapt the viewer with their realism. Suzanne’s directness with Song on their drive to Simon’s school — minutes after meeting — makes for a prickly, culture-clashy sort of moment; the car door won’t open when Song is expected to step onto the sidewalk and meet her new charge; Marc the downstairs tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) bullies his way into Suzanne’s kitchen to use the stove, and politely fumes while Song rings her boss for permission; Suzanne phonies her way through her bo-bo discomfort with a pair of piano movers; and Suzanne’s outbursts over Marc’s shenanigans drive Song into stillness as she waits for the storms to pass (they also unsettle a visiting piano tuner and an offscreen taxi driver). Somehow, though, over the course of the movie and a timeframe of a few days, Suzanne and Song bump around each other enough to spark some warmth and grow to like one another.
Hou may be a Taiwanese director making his first film outside of Asia, but he has no problem navigating French culture artistically. Rather than portray the standard mauve Paris typically captured by foreign directors, Hou’s Paris is a city of commuters and advertising and cramped homes and radiant amber light that infuses streets and kitchens alike. While he might be deliberate as hell with his structure and framing, he has no problem letting go in other areas; Hou instructed his actors to improvise their dialogue, which results in pure, naturalistic performances that deserve every accolade they’re earning. We rarely see Binoche so stripped of her signature doe-eyed sweetness; this is the first time I’ve been impressed with her work since Trois couleurs: Bleu. Her training as an actor can really be seen when her character performs voice-work for the show she’s producing — we can spot the techniques Binoche has been schooled in and appreciate how naturally she deploys them. Binoche’s Suzanne is high-energy and emotional, and if her performance seems fractured, it’s also appropriate; Suzanne’s neuroses are meant to exhaust us as they exhaust those around her, and (for what it’s worth), she’s a dead-ringer for a puppeteer I know in real life with the same immaturity and fried blond hair (so, you know, it works for me). Each time Simon or Song treats Suzanne with their calmness and gets her back to zero, we witness a staggering acting co-dependence that deepens the character of the bipolar artiste, which is normally just a grating screen type. And Fang — Suzanne’s complement — is an appealing character and an implacable solid of a performer who knows what to do with her body when dialogue is sparse. Her mass anchors every scene she’s in.
Moving bodies around a set is obviously Hou’s obsession, which comes across in his metaphorical use of puppet images — a cliché beautifully refreshed in this film. Hou has a longstanding fascination with the art (see The Puppetmaster) and if puppetry is thought by some to be sheer pretension, he actually makes it relevant and engaging here. Suzanne’s most comfortable in her art, but she animates more than her dolls — it’s in her nature to manipulate others in ways far more subtle and effortless than the illusions she produces onstage with her fellow artists. She takes advantage of Song more than once, asking her to be an interpreter for a visiting Chinese puppet master, or to transfer old 8mm reels onto disc. Meanwhile, Suzanne is being played by Marc, a friend of her estranged husband who hasn’t paid rent in over a year. The fleeting social mini-hells between characters, which come about when one person has no control over the words or actions or even the presence of another, contrasts with Suzanne’s godlike control of puppets when she’s in rehearsal, or with her talent for improvising voice-overs for faces in soundless old video footage. The balloon itself is a sort of puppet, too; Hou reveals how the balloon was kited around by a man dressed in green who was later digitally erased — a technique Song plans to use in the student film she’s crafting (another tribute to Lamorisse; Hou likes his layering). Even the score — a Keith Jarrett circa Köln Concert descendent — reinforces Hou’s interest in string-works. The sparse piano music, as soft and casual as Mark Lee Ping Bing’s cinematography, and just as lovely, rounds out the conceit of string-pulling in the film.
While it might not seem to be at first glance, this movie is structurally as tight as a drum, with action, theme, soundtrack, setting and cinematography reinforcing and renewing one another. That structural tightness seems to be at odds with the movie’s wandering, contemplative style, but that’s Hou’s gift as a director — an ability to braid two seemingly disparate cinematic forms into one yarn. Flight of the Red Balloon is designed to drug us. It wants to mesmerize us with the potential of art and everyday life, with gentle images and ambient sounds and the dynamic generated between Song, Suzanne, Simon, and the other characters who pop on and off the constrained stage that is Suzanne’s apartment. Song and Simon may wander the parks of Paris, and the balloon might oscillate lazily over the rooftops, but that looseness of play constricts each time Hou returns us to Suzanne’s flat and props his camera, like an audience member’s upturned face, at one end of the room. Things happen in that room, but the movie isn’t ultimately about narrative. Its action is just engaging enough to lull us into a spell that has a sensation I can’t put into words but nevertheless transfixed me (granted, you’ll need to have a weakness for naturalistic acting — my Achilles heel — and slow-paced films to succumb).
These contradictions are mirrored in Hou’s treatment of the problems and beauty of art itself, which is shown to be both indispensable and intrusive. Suzanne’s face only really breaks with joy when she’s performing, yet her priorities are under Hou’s glass; he sets up an either/or, then spends the movie fusing those options together. The movie’s final scene — Simon and his classmates being “taught” a painting in the Musée d’Orsay — is designed to leave us mulling over those questions. Fiction and reality vie for our either/or approval when the child gazing at a balloon in a picture expands to Simon gazing at his own balloon outside the window — which expands again to ourselves gazing at a movie about a child and a balloon from the vantage of Real Life. Yes, the balloon is (multi)symbolic, but again, it’s more incidental than material, and it fascinates us from the margins while the characters’ hurried, solid Everyday outshines what’s really little more than a bubble. Hou’s movie isn’t about balloons or commitments — it’s about the tensions generated in the gaps between both. But in the end, who cares what this movie’s about? Aiming for the symbolic jugular is not the way to approach poetic expression the first time around — it’s more important to ride the mood and let these types of films do their affective work and just be. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on July 31, 2008.)