In the Air
Drifting Through Hsiao-Hsien Hou's Latest Cinematic Cocktail
After this issue went to press, the Charles Theatre alerted us that they had a change of scheduling. This film is not screening this week.
The following scene should feel transparently manipulative: As a blind piano tuner works in a cluttered Parisian flat, the lady of the house flits around trying to maintain order. Her son fields a call from her daughter, who calls to inform her mother that she wants to stay in Brussels a little longer even though Mom is trying to make room for her in Paris. But Mom is too distracted by a heated argument with a downstairs tenant over back pay, a buddy of her husband's who, before stomping off, maliciously says what she's been suspecting: that her writer husband, in Montreal trying to finish his book, isn't coming back.
Throughout, the piano tuner's methodical patience brings the flat instrument into pleasant musicality as the ramshackle family unit around him frays and sputters like a fish on a dry land. It would be a leaden use of contrast if the scene wasn't orchestrated with such an understated sophistication, steadfastly but unobtrusively peering into these people's lives without feeling like exploitative spying or passive observation. Of course, the maestro of this scene, Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou, is his generation's Robert Bresson, the patient watcher who neither judges the actions and people in front of his camera nor instructs his viewers how to think and feel about them, merely recognizing that sometimes the irregular rhythms of life unfold at their own dramatically mesmerizing pace. The above scene comes from The Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou's first Western feature, and it isn't a remake of Albert Lamorisse's almost universally adored 1956 children's flick "The Red Balloon"--about a young boy (Lamorisse's son) and the surprisingly animated titular object--as much as it is a riff on Lamorisse's themes of childhood's isolation and wonderment. Hou's Red Balloon is a fascinating experience, even if you're not quite sure what it all means in the end.
Which is to say that, as in Hou's intoxicatingly observed other movies, Red Balloon moves at a hypnotic pace in which nothing much happens, per se, although a series of masterfully staged sequences stitch together moments that begin to complete the plot's picture, though not entirely. Song (Fang Song), a Chinese student studying film in Paris, takes a nanny job to watch over the young Simon (Simon Iteanu). Simon opens the movie addressing an off-screen floating red balloon, a hovering allusion to Lamorisse's original that functions less as a motif--although it does crop up throughout the picture--than a symbol through which Hou can consider the very notion of a motif. It appears as the balloon itself, as a piece of graffito on the side of a building, in the digital-video movie that Song is making in film school, and as an element in Félix Vallotton's 1899 painting "Le Ballon." In each instance, the significance of the red balloon isn't changing so much as it allows Hou to encourage you to reflect upon the ways such an ordinary item can freight such enigmatic emotional energy.
Only the balloon drifts so weightlessly through the movie, as Hou's characters are often frustratingly tethered to the ground. It helps that the mother at the story's heart is portrayed by a fearless Juliette Binoche, giving her Suzanne--a slightly bohemian artist/actress--an anxious but steadfast stability. Binoche, an actress cursed with a porcelain beauty that has landed her roles as obscure objects of desire or touchingly fragile kind souls, finally gets to put her considerable gifts into a woman refreshingly plagued by mundane problems. Her Suzanne splashes into every scene as if cream into coffee, bringing with her a spark of colorful garments, plunging necklines, and a dazzlingly disturbed head of blond hair that keeps her looking like she's always one more piece of bad news away from losing her delicate grip on life. Suzanne is the character whom Hou invests with monologues, phone conversations, and memories that fill in the plot like an Advent calendar. Suzanne is also the only character shown doing something that brings her joy: She voices marionettes in what looks like an experimental production, shedding her clinging, busy daily demands by breathing life into a make-believe fantasy, which Binoche pulls off with a flabbergasting brio. Perhaps that is The Flight of the Red Balloon's parting shot: In the magical escapism of visual storytelling, almost anything is possible.