Doodad Kind of Town

"Flight of the Red Balloon"
April 23, 2008, 1:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

There’s a scene late in “Flight of the Red Balloon” in which a teacher asks a group of young students to look at a painting of a little boy with a red balloon.

“Is the painting happy or sad?” she asks them.

“It’s both!” they answer, noting that the sun is shining on the little boy, but there are also dark clouds in another part of the picture.

And that’s a pretty apt description of the movie itself. “Flight of the Red Balloon” indeed has some sunny patches, but much of the film is tinged with the cloudiness of melancholy.

It’s been many, many years since I saw the classic French children’s film “The Red Balloon,” and my memory of it is dim (although I did get a nice refresher from this lovely remembrance by Marilyn at Ferdy on Films). So I didn’t bring a lot of preconceived notions to “Flight of the Red Balloon,” which its director, Hsiao-hsien Hou, intends as an homage to the earlier classic. For the first 20 minutes or so, the film’s trajectory felt as random and aimless as the flight of the titular red balloon floating slowly above the rooftops of Paris. But, eventually, the film’s acutely observed details of a few Parisians’ lives drew me in completely.

As in its 1956 predecessor, there is a red balloon and a little boy (Simon Iteanu) in “Flight…”. But in the newer film, the boy’s life is filled with complications. His mother (Juliette Binoche), a blowsy, bleached blond (whose mercurial mood swings give the film a shot of needed adrenaline whenever she appears) makes a living providing lively narration for puppet shows. His father, Pierre, is absent; he’s off in Montreal working on a novel and it’s strongly suggested he won’t be returning. Two of Pierre’s friends rent a downstairs flat from Binoche on which they seldom pay rent. His half-sister, Louise – who is also unseen, but who looms large in the boy’s imagination – is studying in Brussels. She’s expected back soon, and Binoche wants to evict the downstairs tenants in order to make room for her. There are a steady stream of people in and out of the boy’s home, and a sense of chaos pervades.

Into this picture comes a new nanny, a Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song). From her first scene, Song establishes a presence of serenity and competence. She doesn’t judge or react to the loose ends at which Binoche operates; she simply accepts the circumstances and gets to work. Song tells Simon that she loves the film “The Red Balloon” and wants to make a movie about red balloons, often including him in the filming. Song and Simon bond in a straightforward and simple way that is neither cute nor particularly heartwarming. But, right from the get-go, you know the boy is well taken care of. There a subtlety and a unforced realism in their relationship that I don’t think you would find between two similar characters in a mainstream American film.

Binoche and Song compliment one as well, much like a pair of bookends. Binoche is flighty – self-absorbed and angry one moment, warm and loving the next – but it’s a seamless performance in which you never catch her acting. (There is one particularly lovely scene in which she storms into her flat from a heated argument with the tenant and goes directly to taking a telephone call from Louis in which she learns that her daughter is not returning to Paris. Heartbroken and weary, she hugs her son and tells him “Grownup things are complicated,” then asks him to tell her about his day. And as he does, you see her slowly brighten and then she looks around the flat -at her son, at Song, at the piano tuner who is at work on the family’s spinet – and she positively glows with love, appreciation and acceptance of her life. It loses something in the telling, but, trust me, it’s amazing to watch.)

Song, on the other hand, is the grounding force for Binoche’s flights of temper. She gives a stability to the boy’s life, as well as to the narrative of the film.

The final scenes show a red balloon hovering outside the boy’s bedroom window, then over his house and finally over the rooftops and spires of Paris. The balloon becomes a symbol of a benevolent presence watching over the boy, a guardian angel of sorts, and leaves us with a feeling that all will be well.

“Flight of the Red Balloon” is never too eager to please. It doesn’t dispense lessons or wisdom, and no one gets smarter or better between the first frame and the last. Yet you grow to love the characters and feel privileged to have glimpsed a bit of their lives. It will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings, but you may not be aware of it until that final image fades.

And, really, isn’t that refreshing?


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Lovely piece. I really need to see this film now, it’ll have to go to the front of the queue.I watched the Red Balloon so much as a kid but haven’t seen it for about 15 years. I think I shall hunt it down this weekend.

Comment by Ibetolis

Ibetolis – Thanks! I think I need to re-watch “The Red Balloon” myself.

Comment by Pat

Pat, I’m so jealous that you actually got to see that in the theaters … here in the wilds of Alabama, I’ll have to wait until DVD. I love Hou.

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick – Although “Flight of the Red Balloon” was playing at the Music Box theatre in Chicago last week, I actually watched it at home through the magic of OnDemand.If you have IFC in Theatres through your cable service or satellite provider, you can see it now.

Comment by Pat

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