Friday, April 25, 2008

The Flight of the Red Balloon

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ever since movie cameras were invented, people have tried to use them to cheat time, freezing shards of life at 24 frames per second. But since the camera changes everything, from how things look to how people behave, making a fiction film that feels like an undoctored slice of life is a complicated act of alchemy. A lot of people may try, but not many pull it off.

Fewer still can string together a series of realistic moods and moments in a way that concentrates life’s poignancy into a pungent broth. That takes a real artist – like Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsaio-hsien (Three Times, The Puppetmaster).

Hou’s latest feature, The Flight of the Red Balloon, was commissioned by Paris’ Museé d’Orsay as part of a series of films by prominent directors that the museum financed on one condition: at least one scene had to be filmed there. Hou’s contribution, which he cowrote as well as directed, is an homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon.

The Flight of the Red Balloon is a lovely work, delicately observed, emotionally resonant, and reminiscent of the great poetic realist Ozu, whose Tokyo Story inspired Hou’s other homage, Café Lumiere.

Nothing momentous happens in Flight, yet it contains a whole world. As in The Red Balloon, a young boy finds – or is found by – a large red balloon, which seems to follow him of its own volition. The camera follows the two through the city as the mysterious balloon floats over the boy’s head like a benediction. Its string is generally just out of reach, though it dips down occasionally to let the boy catch hold of it.

But the similarities end there. The original story, in which the solitary boy defends himself and his balloon from jealous peers and imperious adults, is about the forces that erode childhood innocence and joy, but Hou’s Paris is a kinder and gentler place than Lamorisse’s. Simon (Simon Iteanu), the well-loved seven-year-old of Hou’s film, may exude the scent of only-child solitude, but he’s rarely alone, and the adults in his life are almost universally loving and respectful.

In fact, Flight is at least as much Simon’s mother’s story as it is his. Maybe that’s why Simon’s balloon doesn’t trail him like a faithful dog or appear in every scene. Instead, it bobs up periodically after a long absence, looming outside a window like an old friend.

Simon’s nurturing but harried mother, Suzanne (an electrically alive Juliette Binoche), is a puppetmaster engaged in staging an adaptation of a Chinese fable. Suzanne has created a cozy nest for herself and her son in a bohemian section of Paris: Though she’s breaking up with her absent boyfriend via long-distance phone fights, there’s a constant ebb and flow of visitors in her comfortably cluttered apartment. The high-strung Suzanne can’t relax even in her own home, thanks in part to a dispute with a tenant who’s months behind on the rent. Calm and in control only when she’s working with her puppets, Suzanne uses art to make sense of the chaos of life.

The other main adult character is Simon’s new nanny, a Chinese film student named Song (played by a Chinese former film student of the same name). Like Hou, Song is shooting a tribute to The Red Balloon with Simon cast as the boy. We often see her work as well, and her movie parallels and sometimes overlaps the one we’re watching. Watching the two women work or talk about their work lets Hou explore the intersection between life and art, mulling over some of the ways they enrich each other.

But you never for a moment lose your footing in Suzanne’s and Simon’s world, thanks in part to the strands of real life that Hou wove into his script. The director based the fight between Suzanne and her tenant on a real conflict involving the woman whose apartment they filmed in, who was one of the movie’s producers. He also gave the actors a lot of leeway in shaping their characters and their dialogue. “There was no [scripted] dialogue,” Binoche told Time Out Chicago. “There was no indication of sitting here or going there. It was all free. And the [cinematographer] had the same situation. He could shoot whatever he wanted to shoot.”

Cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, who has shot several other Hou movies, finds a soft beauty in old-city Paris, whose silvery grays make an elegant backdrop for the pomegranate-red balloon. He also brings out the eloquence in inanimate objects like Suzanne’s puppets and Simon’s balloon.

Lee and Hou layer their compositions, feeding that sense of life being captured in the raw by showing two or three people doing unrelated activities in one shot. Watching it all from a bit of a distance,in long shots that let things unfold in real time, they create a quiet, contemplative rhythm that draws us in further, encouraging us to notice things we might otherwise overlook.

The pace picks up and nerves get jangled periodically when Suzanne, that human whirlwind, injects a jolt of adrenaline into the mix. But in the end, this quietly moving film leaves you feeling as buoyant as the balloon that floats in and out of its frame.

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