Of the main figures in Hou Hsiao- hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon–a single mother in Paris, her 7-year-old son, the young Chinese woman who works as the boy’s nanny–I suspect it’s the title character with whom Hou identifies. In memory of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, Hou has set loose one of his own in the city; and the toy’s way of weaving in and around the story seems much like the movement of his attention, as it bobs inquisitively close to people or wafts out of their reach, descends toward the paving stones or rises high over the roofs.
Granted, there are differences between the floater and the filmmaker. Although the red balloon that starred in the Lamorisse film is famously native to Paris, Hou is a stranger here, having built his great career almost entirely in Taiwan. If not for the suggestion (or whim) of a French producer, he might never have made the movie, which has him working in a European location for the first time. But perhaps for that reason, Hou the outsider has adopted a teasing, playful, deliberately ungrounded viewpoint in Flight of the Red Balloon. He comes and goes so freely that you may be surprised, near the end, to realize how deeply he’s drawn you into a down-to-earth story. A woman has stood up for herself and is stronger for it, if also a bit lonelier and a little more disillusioned.
For narrative purposes, this woman has been called Suzanne; but she’s really Juliette Binoche, who has turned herself into a shaggy blonde for the occasion and dressed in a disarray of bosom-exposing sweaters. From this get-up, you may read the hectic daily improvisation of Suzanne’s life, as well as her sexual self-assertion in the face of mounting challenges: abandonment, middle age, a habit of snacking at all hours. Suzanne’s supposed partner, the father of little Simon (Simon Iteanu), is never seen, having run off to Montreal to write a book on a suspiciously prolonged deadline. Her previous lover has vanished entirely, leaving nothing behind except a teenage daughter, who lives in Brussels and is absent for most of the year. Suzanne’s life has become an anxious round of rushing to and from work, caring as best she can for Simon, fighting with the deadbeat tenants downstairs (who maddeningly pretend to be her friends) and muttering furiously about the condition of her apartment. Imagine a tunnel-like storage closet fitted with two rickety lofts where you can sleep, or break your neck trying.
Change the language, and you’ve got a situation Hou could have dramatized in Taipei, where he probably would have tucked his characters just as snugly into their unglamorous quarters. You might call his movies pre-inhabited; he often says that he can’t begin filming them until he knows the precise location of each room and piece of furniture in his setting, along with the exact routine of the people using the space. Just so, even though Suzanne and Simon reside in Paris, you feel they must have lived for years in this fictitious apartment before Hou showed up with his camera. The poster tacked on the front door has the look of a decoration that long ago became invisible. The old wooden table, used for meals and work alike, is flanked by three matching chairs, plus an odd fourth that settled in years ago with its own mute history. I’d guess about a third of the film passes inside this neo-Taiwanese residence, where Hou never yields to the allure of the movies’ mythical Paris except to stage infrequent visits from the red balloon. It hovers over the skylight of Simon’s sleeping loft or drifts, unseen, past the courtyard window.
Why is it there? I suppose there are three answers, the most sensible of which is also the least satisfying.
A rationalist would interpret the red balloon as the fantasy of a lonely kid, suggested to him by his new nanny. She is a film student from Beijing named Song Fang (played by Song Fang, a real film student from Beijing); and like a low-tech young female version of Hou, she is shooting a project based on the Lamorisse movie. As she goes around Paris, Song seeks out surviving traces of The Red Balloon and explains them to Simon, who hadn’t known the story. So when you see the red balloon trail Simon through the city and keep him company from a distance, you might be looking at the boy’s imaginative projection. The problem with this interpretation is that Simon is a quiet and adaptable child–rather too quiet and adaptable to make a good movie character–who doesn’t seem to need a fantasy object, so long as he has his pinball machines and video games. I’d say the red balloon is fascinated with him, rather than the other way around.
A better explanation of the balloon might come from the great world of film financing. Flight of the Red Balloon was initiated by the Musée d’Orsay, which chose to celebrate its twentieth anniversary by offering production deals to four directors with impeccably profit-free credentials: Hou, Olivier Assayas, Raoul Ruiz and Jim Jarmusch. The only condition was that at least one scene in each film had to be shot in the Orsay. Hou could have invented any story he liked and then run his characters, just once, through the galleries; but having a mind too elegant for pretense, he searched instead for something that would make the museum seem like a point of origin rather than an excuse. He found it in Félix Vallotton’s painting Le Ballon: an image of a solitary child in a park, chasing a red ball. When Hou at last brings Simon together with this picture, late in the film, you feel you’ve witnessed a happy secret being shared, as the boy looks at the red balloon fixed in the painting and then glances up at the skylight to see it floating simultaneously over the Orsay. As if playing a serenely refined game, Hou transforms constraint into freedom–which feels more to the point than any plotbound interpretation.
But that’s not exactly right, either; and so for the third explanation I come back to Suzanne, who neither sees the red balloon nor thinks about it.
She’s kept busy instead fighting off a swarm of cares; but outside the trap of her apartment, Suzanne is far from hopeless, thanks to her work. A scholar-practitioner of puppeteering who especially loves her art’s Chinese traditions, she is currently in rehearsals for a French-language version of a Yuan dynasty play, in which she performs all the voices. For Binoche, this is an opportunity to show off a very impressive new virtuosity in Chinese-style vocal acrobatics–warbling, crooning, sighing, caterwauling–as she acts out the legend of a love even deeper and more enduring than the ocean.
You have the stylization of Binoche’s puppet voices versus her fiercely naturalistic portrayal of Suzanne; the great romantic trials of her play’s characters versus the daily frustrations of her life. Transpose these oppositions to another key, and you’ve got the magic of the red balloon (elusive visitor from the world of art) versus the mundane realities of the present-day city. The glory of Flight of the Red Balloon is that it contrasts these two experiences but is too wise to separate them. After all, Suzanne herself plays with toys.
If you’ve seen Hou’s The Puppetmaster–for my money, as good a movie as has ever been made–you will know that he can combine a moving, closely observed story with amused commentary and the artifice of playacting, in scenes that develop so unaffectedly that they seem neither more nor less goal-oriented than breathing. So, although Flight of the Red Balloon is a little tricky to explain, what you need to know about it is simple. The season is early autumn, when school has begun and people wear jackets but the trees are still in leaf. Windows everywhere reflect passers-by back at themselves and complicate the view of the city, while the sunlight, though soft, casts a crisp shadow on the pavement from a passing balloon. With his thoroughly untouristic sensibility, Hou is more likely to show you railroad tracks than landmarks when he ventures out of Suzanne’s apartment. But there’s Notre Dame, off in the distance; and here for the finale is a splendid view of the Sacré-Coeur.
And then there’s Paris as the French imagine it. Writer-director Christophe Honoré, who is not yet 40, has lately been busy trying to reconcile the bourgeois-bohemian Paris he knows with the Paris he’s seen in New Wave films. Merely to describe the project is to hint at unevenness and posturing, but also ambition and (if lucky) a sense of renewal. Welcome to Les Chansons d’amour (Love Songs), Honoré’s new French pop musical, shot in bright colors and drizzly, wintry conditions in locations around the Place de la Bastille.
Who, you might ask, will be liberated? The leading candidates are the cutest boy in contemporary French film, Louis Garrel, once again mimicking the antic manner of Jean-Pierre Léaud but in a leaner, darker, more sexually aggressive key, and the cutest girl, Ludivine Sagnier, here swinging down the street in her little white raincoat, her blond hair bobbing, like a shorter, squintier Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Honoré’s main plot conceit, shamelessly crafted to raise an ooh-la-la, has these lovers joining in a threesome with pert brunette Clotilde Hesme–or maybe a foursome, counting the dewy high school lad (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) who just won’t let Garrel say no.
The answers to all the film’s questions emerge largely through songs: a whole cycle of them, composed by Alex Beaupain and performed in varying degrees of breathiness and intensity by the actors. The music is chromatically vampy; the lyrics, eloquent in a nasty and melancholic vein. As for the liberation: one character does get free, but with such devastating finality that the others spend the rest of the movie trying to recover.
I can respect someone who wants to make a grim Parisian sex-romp musical–but how much? Compared with the characters in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with their poverty and forced marriage and service in a colonial war, the young folks in Love Songs don’t have any substance. And compared with the characters in Une femme est une femme–the other obvious comparison–they have no style.
But now, a confession: I have watched this movie twice, and each time I’ve been thrilled at the end when two characters break into song and out of their apartment, stepping onto a window ledge as they risk their necks for love. Honoré’s gamble isn’t that high–the worst he’s risked is ridicule–but on the whole, I’d say it has paid off.