Loosely inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic “The Red Balloon,” Hou Hsiao Hsien’s French-language debut gracefully extends his recent thematic concerns — specifically, with the hectic pace and isolated nature of urban life — and relocates them to contempo Paris. Filmed with the Taiwanese director’s characteristic sensitivity, this eloquent study of loneliness and postmodern drift likely will be received with more admiration than rapture by the helmer’s followers. But Juliette Binoche’s turn as a harried single mom and pic’s enlivening portrait of domestic rupture make this a highly accessible Hou, ensuring healthy fest life and, perhaps, moderately stronger arthouse biz than usual.
Lamorisse’s lovely but slender 34-minute short, about a young boy who’s followed around Paris by a red balloon, proves a mere starting point for the nearly two-hour “Flight of the Red Balloon.” Within Hou’s body of work, pic most resembles his Tokyo-set “Cafe Lumiere” in its evocation of a bustling city criss-crossed by train tracks and the sad souls who occasionally traverse them.
Notably, the balloon is less a direct participant here than an idly floating spectator, silently bearing witness to the story of emotionally unsteady mother Suzanne (Binoche), her likable but neglected son Simon (Simon Iteanu) and the boy’s watchful nanny, Song (Song Fang), a Chinese-born woman who speaks fluent French.
Hou’s camera casually follows Song and Simon as they wander about Paris, strolling through parks, stopping at a local bakery or visiting the Chinese puppet theater where Suzanne works as a voice actress. But for the most part, the action remains confined to Suzanne’s artfully cluttered flat, lovingly lit and lensed by Hou’s regular d.p., Mark Lee Ping Bing, whose long takes and gentle camera movements capture the rhythms of daily life unspooling.
Rather than favoring an exclusively child’s-eye perspective, Hou holds the three central characters tightly within the frame, yet still manages to isolate them, his camera registering the subtlest shifts in tone, tension and body language. As usual with Hou, the film’s exquisite visual pleasures will be lost on viewers unreceptive to his patient but emotionally generous sensibility.
Even shorter attention spans will get a regular jolt, however, from Suzanne, an overworked harridan who always looks frazzled, whines constantly about her problems — most of them having to do with her irresponsible downstairs tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) and Simon’s absentee father — and then tries to overcompensate for her mood-swings with excessive cheerfulness and apologies. Sporting a haphazard blonde dye job, Binoche expertly modulates her character’s blend of single-minded careerism and emotional neediness, even suggesting that such impulses are inseparable from her artistic drive.
Hou’s fascination with the arts is very much in evidence here, and even allows for a strain of self-reflexivity: Song, a cinema major, references the Lamorisse film early on and later uses her videocamera to record Simon walking around the city with red balloon in tow.
At one point, Hou deliberately dispels the film’s digital illusion, plainly showing the wirework used to move the balloon around. But he also locates a sublime poetry in shots of the balloon hovering at a half-open window, or floating high above the rooftops of Paris — an effortless metaphor for loneliness, but also the promise of beauty in an age all too willing to ignore it.
Commissioned as the first film in a series by the Musee d’Orsay, pic scrupulously avoids any remotely touristy exterior shots of Paris up until the lyrical finale. A few well-chosen French pop standards supplement the delicate piano score.