In recommending this movie, I should warn you that you might very well hate it. That sounds peculiar, but while the film was a hit amongst critics (enough to earn it thirtieth place on a list of the decade’s most acclaimed films), it has plenty of detractors. The Netflix rating is just over 2 stars; a typical message board thread on IMDb simply reads “Zzzzzzz…”; when my own parents saw it last summer, my mother despised Juliette Binoche’s frantic, histrionic character, and my father fell asleep. But I liked it. Why? The division between critics and many viewers may suggest that the movie is some sort of arthouse pomposity. However, on first view the minor-key film hardly seems ambitious enough to warrant charges of pretension (I eventually revised my view, but as the ambition is quite subtle, the point remains.) The “story” follows a pampered yet seemingly unspoiled little boy whose mother, voice actress at a puppet theatre, is a nervous wreck and whose gentle Chinese nanny takes him on urban walks and makes little movies to pass the time. This plot is merely pretext for a series of tableaux, although certain events do allow us to peek at the character’s psychological underpinnings. Nonetheless, despite Binoche’s hyperactivity, the fleeting flavor of Flight serves a soothing balm rather than a caffeinated jolt to the system; while part of me misses the verve and vivacity of the French New Wave, this Gallic lassitude also has its charms. Flight of the Red Balloon is, essentially, a home movie with nice photography. If that’s not your cup of tea, look for coffee elsewhere. If it is, savor the taste.
To designate the film a home movie is not to suggest shaky handheld photography, mugging for the lens, or subjective viewpoints (quite the opposite, in fact; director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's camera scrupulously keeps its distance). Rather, it's to evoke the mood of observation, of life unfolding naturally before the gaze of an unrushed onlooker. To some, home movies are the epitome of self-indulgence, something you must suffer through in the wake of your good friends' first baby (and to be fair, in such situations the cons can outweigh the pros). But to others, we happy few so to speak, home movies are avenues to the animating spirit, the undisguised life-as-lived which we rarely experience in mainstream or even (maybe especially) arthouse movies, all done up with narrative contrivance or special effects. Observation of reality is one of the cornerstones of the cinema, alongside the medium's equally intoxicating penchant for fantasy. I suspect that Hou sees the home movie in that latter light, and indeed his film is set in France - the nation which first enshrined the dual impulses of the cinematograph with the domesticated curiosity of the Lumieres and the fantastical moonshots of Melies. Because, make no mistake, while Hou's film is essentially ground out of a home movie texture, it also receives a healthy dollop of fantasy which provides definition - and gives the film its title.
Hou captures both threads of French - and international - cinema history in Flight of the Red Balloon: on the one hand, sitting back and letting his cluttered little domestic scenes unfold with laconic ease and a minimum of interference, on the other, siccing a rotund red balloon on a little boy's heels, letting it float free of gravity and atmosphere alike, bobbing and weaving with melancholy languor through the crooked chimneys and leafy avenues of Paris. The balloon itself has a long French history - both the classic children's film The Red Balloon (1956) and the moody canvas of Félix Vallotton's painting "The Balloon" (pictured above) are explicitly mentioned in Flight of the Red Balloon. The latter work of art is the central object in Hou's closing minutes, as a field trip to the museum sees a teacher quizzing her students on the work's meaning. The multiplicity of viewpoints (are we hovering above the scene? low to the ground?), the use of shade to express both a joyful and mournful mood (the mournful seeming to belong to the adult figures dimly glimpsed on the horizon), the lively feeling of motion present in this flat surface - all are discussed, and all, it is hinted, apply to the film itself. Meanwhile, the movie's own red balloon hovers high above the museum, "observing" through a thick pane of glass.
The tragedy of the early Red Balloon was that the cruelty of the child's world (still marked by the devastation of World War II) would not allow the joyful friendship between the boy and his balloon to last. The tragedy of this new Red Balloon, while less violent, is rather awful in a different way: the very friendship is never allowed to blossom. The balloon, beckoned by the boy with a hyper monologue in the opening minutes, is always on the outside - outside the museum, outside the apartment flat, outside the speeding train. Sometimes the boy sees it, sometimes he doesn't, but he's never able to grab ahold; what's more, I don't think he ever even reaches out to grasp the string. Likewise, the film itself - despite its warmth - is distanced, almost preternaturally calm despite the chaos of Binoche's personality. While Valloton's painting evokes a bittersweet volatility and the original Red Balloon presages the New Wave (despite its rather staid style and New Waver Francois Truffaut's dislike thereof), Hou's Parisian picture is a cozy cocoon, comfortable, soothing in a way, yet queerly lonely and somehow lacking in true vivacity.
Watch and observe: Binoche slams around her apartment like a pinball, accosting neighbors, mussing her son's hair, cursing her missing husband; nanny and film student Fang Song dutifully and - one vaguely suspects, unsuccessfully - studies the craft of filmmaking, hoping to create a work of magic; the little boy quietly watches the adult world with confusion, and retreats into the warmth of his imagination and nostalgic reminisces of fleeting afternoons with an older sister in which a genuinely free sense of playfulness is finally unleashed. Somehow none of these characters quite seems to be fully experiencing life, and somehow all of them seem to know it. And so does Hou. That red balloon is no longer threatened by the stones of impoverished bullies, but by the indifference of a world which has removed itself from the dangerous ups and downs of raw experience. One suspects that the boy may be as fearful of an emotional high - the balloon - as he is of an emotional low, including the lows (his parents' troubled marriage, the tension as his mother evicts a neighbor, his nanny's unmentioned homesickness and student anxieties, his own separation from his sister and emotional distance from his mother) which also hover around the edges of his peaceful little world. (Or perhaps the red balloon is the low, rather than the high, its crimson skin connoting a lingering depression, brightness not withstanding - after all, Holly Golightly once spoke of the "mean reds".)
To take a step back from the emotional resonance, there's a possible film-historical reading here too; Hou - himself Taiwanese - has in a sense composed an elegy for the postwar European art film, a mournful acknowledgement that the vigor of the Truffauts and Godards has mostly dissipated in favor of a calmer, yet ultimately less cathartic, experience (that sturm und drang which the vibrant red balloon heralded in 1956 has come and gone.) Of course, the balloon "represents" neither the child's reticence nor (my own admitted invention) the violent birth and death of a passionate Euro-cinema. That balloon does, however, correspond to both conceptions, which suggests the robust flexibility of the symbol Hou has chosen, one iconic element amongst a strictly - or, to be more evocative, loosely - naturalistic mise en scene. I began this review thinking that, after praising the film, I would describe it as a slight, if pleasant, piece of work, probably unworthy of a #30 slot on any list of "the best films of the millennium." Yet in recollecting the movie, in reflecting on the balance between that "slightness" and the melancholy weight (ironic, that) of the title character, I'm inclined to reconsider that assessment. Perhaps Flight of the Red Balloon's weightlessness, so indicative of post-60s European cinema, such an offhand, indirect way to distract us from an emotional subtext, is its essential key to greatness - just so long as that balloon is floating on the margins, silently reminding us of what we're missing.
Next up: Capturing the Friedmans (#42)