“Flight of the Red Balloon” is part of the Portland International Film Festival (70 some films, 44 shorts, Feb. 7-23), a movie made in French by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien as a sort of homage to “The Red Balloon,” Albert Lamorisse’s famous 1956 short film about a balloon with a life of its own. It’s the sort of movie that you have to decide, do I like this sort of thing or not? And if you don’t, it’s going to be excruciating — it obeys none of our storytelling conventions about pacing, action, climax, denouement, resolution. Maybe it’s all denouement, but even that’s stretching it. It’s highly unlikely that it will be one of the PIFF movies picked up for a regular run at one of Portland’s commercial theaters, even though it has a star in the cast, the incomparable Juliette Binoche.
So if you find yourself watching it all the way to the end with some pleasure that might even involve periods of inattention? If it’s not “unbearable” as The Oregonian’s Shawn Levy describes it, then what is going on? A pure form of naturalism leavened by some whimsy. And the lives of others responsibly depicted have a certain appeal, an invitation to consideration, that doesn’t have much to do with entertainment. And that’s exactly the criticism most frequently leveled at Hou: He’s not entertaining.
Binoche plays Suzanne, a mother with a 7-year-old son, Simon, a cute kid, “gentle” as his new nanny Song describes him, though maybe he’s just a bit withdrawn. Simon has a relationship with a red balloon. It follows him, but it won’t allow him to possess it, no matter how he pleads at the beginning of the film. Song is a film student who is making a short movie about a red balloon, following Lamorisse. Is she the supplier of the red balloon(s) in the movie? We never learn, but then we don’t learn much about her, except how she is with Simon and Suzanne — respectful, gentle (which perhaps is why she describes Simon as she does), responsible, creative, quiet. We see how she lives.
Which is very different from Suzanne, whose life is chaotic like her apartment. She’s a devoted puppeteer, or at least the voice in a puppet theater, dedicated to various forms, including Chinese, which means that Song can help her translate the work of a master Chinese puppeteer whom she travels to see. The men in her life are stacked up like the piles of magazines and books in her apartment, some in play and some discarded. We don’t get a fix on who Simon’s father is; there is talk of Simon’s sister who isn’t a sister; a boyfriend is in Montreal working on a novel that has stalled after two years; men friends drop by; a tenant downstairs is behind in his rent. She is revved up, unhappy, struggling.
And life goes on. Suzanne goes to rehearsal. A piano is moved into the apartment and tuned by a blind piano tuner. A friend comes over to help with legal advice about the tenant situation. Song and Simon make Song’s movie, play pinball, go to the park, to school, to the museum, where the class looks at a painting of a red balloon. The sister shows up, presumably in flashback. We get a clear fix on these lives being led. There is conflict, but mostly on the level of annoyance. There is unhappiness, but not all the way to despair. There is no plot and so no resolution.
There is a red balloon. It stays in touch with Simon and it’s often in the frame of Song’s short. A lot of the time it floats by unseen by everyone except for us in the audience. (It’s not as engaged as Lamorisse’s balloon.) It is symbolic, right? But of what? And here again the answer isn’t clear, though it’s possible to run the gamut of cliches — hope, youth, etc. But frankly, we don’t know; we just know that it has a special connection with Song and Simon.
And that’s it: some lives being led in Paris, some better, some worse. A boy we hope for. A mom we recognize. A filmmaker finding her way. Given the rules of our movie-making, we expect something to… happen. It never does. But there is room for reflection instead and maybe more than you knew already.
For a defense of Hou’s approach see Kent Jones in Film Comment.
“Flight of the Red Balloon” repeats at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Broadway, 1000 SW Broadway.