The summer when I was 4, my mother took me each Friday to the town library to sit in the dark with a juice box, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and 10 or 20 other kids to watch a movie. This was a year or two before VCRs became ubiquitous, when watching movies was still by necessity a communal pastime. These library outings happened each week, but there's only one movie I can remember—vividly—seeing there that summer: a half-hour, nearly wordless French film from the 1950s called The Red Balloon.
Directed by Albert Lamorisse and starring his 5-year-old son Pascal, The Red Balloon, just out on DVD, is about a boy who, seeing the object named in the title tied to a lamppost one morning, shimmies up the pole to untie it and take it with him around Paris. He soon discovers that the balloon has a mind of its own and wants to play. He also learns that adults feel threatened by the distracting, impetuous object: With his bright red companion tagging along, he's tossed into detention at school and out of church entirely. His fellow 5-year-olds, meanwhile, see the balloon merely as something to be grabbed and poked and, eventually, destroyed.
Pascal's devotion to the balloon singles him out from his peers, and viewers (or like-minded 4-year-olds, at least) come to identify with this unassuming outsider. The movie is not straightforwardly allegorical, but the balloon does represent a kind of freedom and individualism at odds with the conformity of school and church and the bullying ways of the mob. When the film debuted, to great acclaim—it won best short film at Cannes and, remarkably, the Oscar for best original screenplay—these qualities had a special resonance: Made a decade or so after the liberation of Paris, the film celebrates a very Parisian balloon, all joie de vivre, surrounded by people who seem more suited to the Vichy era. (The schoolmaster in particular has the look of a collaborator.)
The balloon, in this reading, is the resistance, fighting not only authority but also ugliness—for, above all, Pascal's balloon is pretty, a perfect red orb of extraordinary hue, filmed to contrast with the gray streets and buildings of the city. After a stunning death scene (one of the little bullies punctures the balloon with a slingshot so that it slowly, painfully deflates, at which point another boy cruelly stomps it to death), all the balloons of Paris take flight and alight on Pascal, who wraps himself in their strings and is then carried through the sky above the city. You can interpret this ending in various ways, if you're so inclined, but the primary response to seeing those many-colored dots floating through a cloudless sky is "Wow, that's beautiful."
That is also the response one has to the best work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, the 60-year-old Taiwanese filmmaker whose latest movie, The Flight of the Red Balloon, is an homage to the Lamorisse classic. Or, rather, it's the response some have to his movies, which are characterized by long takes (often with little camera movement) and a disregard for traditional story structure. His champions—like Times film critic Manohla Dargis—speak of his "mastery of film space," the way he arranges people and objects in striking compositions on the screen. Detractors, such as Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, see a problem with "what happens" in his films—namely, "not enough."
Hou's Flight, now in the midst of a small U.S. run, stars Juliette Binoche, bleach-blond and wonderfully unkempt as Suzanne, a Parisian woman who provides voices for a puppet theater. She also deals with the deadbeat tenants in the apartment below; pleads with an absent husband off writing a novel in Montreal; and takes rather erratic care of her son, Simon. When the movie begins, she has just hired Song (Fang Song) to be Simon's nanny. Both women are artists: Suzanne is a performer, the center of attention, while Song is an observer, collecting material (she's working on her own homage to The Red Balloon). Both are clearly devoted to their work—and, in their different ways, self-absorbed.
Which brings us to Simon, the heir to Pascal. Though he doesn't lack for company, Simon seems just as isolated as his predecessor. With his PlayStation and his piano lessons, he's far busier than his 1950s forebear, who had little in his schedule to interfere with balloon-following. (If Simon ever sees The Red Balloon, it's safe to assume it will not be in a dark library with a bunch of other kids, but at home, and on Blu-ray.) There's a commentary here, also present in Hou's other recent films, on the hectic pace of contemporary life and the sheer number of distractions with which a mere balloon would have to contend for the attentions of a young boy.
In Flight's opening scene, which is directly adapted from the Lamorisse original, Simon tries to get the balloon to join him on public transportation (the subway this time, rather than a trolley). The balloon is coy, floating behind the leaves of a tree for a minute or two, in a manner reminiscent of the original balloon's occasional flirtatiousness. Except that the balloon in Flight never comes back out into the open: It is nearly always behind a window or a door, just outside the world of Simon, Suzanne, and Song. In the movie's longest passage, all three of them sit around their apartment, up to various things, while a fourth person tunes the piano and the red balloon hovers outside. Here, Hou's talent for layering the screen with multiple points of attention—and his patience in allowing the viewer's focus to drift slowly to each of these points—is at its most impressive. The scene is seven or eight minutes long and all a single take.
The argument may seem clear: The enemies of beauty are no longer school and church and the mob but the clutter and distraction of contemporary life. And yet the sheer loveliness of the piano-tuning scene complicates that idea: Hou has crafted an exquisite scene out of just such dissonance and disorder. Perhaps, he seems to suggest, we can find beauty in clutter and distraction, with a little more patience and quiet attention. Hou has not updated The Red Balloon so much as adapted its symbolism for his own purposes.
In the film's penultimate scene, Simon visits the Musee d'Orsay in Paris on a field trip, and we watch as his class discusses "Le Ballon," by Félix Vallotton. In the painting, a child in the foreground runs after a red ball, while two women in the distance go about their business. By reaching a century into the past ("Le Ballon" is from 1899; one of the film's working titles was À la recherche du ballon rouge), Hou implies that the red balloon, and whatever it represents, has always been elusive, and that Simon will chase after it in his own way, as Pascal did in his. One of Simon's classmates describes the painting as "a bit happy and a bit sad," since the foreground is light and sunny and the background is dark and shadowed. This is also true of Hou's film, which, rather than lifting Simon above Paris with a phalanx of multicolored balloons, ends with a single red balloon floating alone above the city—distant, perhaps, but not entirely out of reach.