Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge) -- the chaos of ordinary life

Director: Hsaio-hsien Hou, 2008.

French films tend to be slow and thoughtful, beautifully photographed but driven by character development rather than a strong plot. The Grocer's Son is a good example of this genre. Even Amelie, the cult classic, follows this approach. The Flight of the Red Balloon takes it to the extreme, while paying homage to the 1956 short movie classic by Albert Lamorisse, The Red Balloon. This is indeed an art-house movie.

A long, almost aimless film, it focuses on three characters. Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is a frazzled mother who is barely holding it together. She works behind the curtain, voicing all the characters in Chinese marrionette dramas. Her husband has gone to Montreal to write a book, leaving her alone with their 7 year-old son, Simon (Simon Iteanu). He is a wide-eyed, tousel-haired kid with an eye for life and a lust for video-games and pinball. The third character is Song (Fang Song), a Taiwanese film student who is hired by Suzanne to help with picking up and watching over Simon since her schedule is so crazy.

Watching Red Balloon is like watching real life. Much of the film shows Song and Simon walking the streets of Paris from school to home. The rest of the film is in Suzanne's home, a cramped and claustrophobic apartment filled with clutter. And clutter seems to characterize her life.

Though she loves Simon, Suzanne needs help. She cannot manage her busy schedule and Simon's. Step in Song. Song seems to add an Asian sense of calm to the household, becoming almost a member of the family. If Suzanne is the motor, Song is the hub, with all the spokes coming out from her. She remains placid and relaxed, keeping Suzanne and Simon centered.

Red Balloon shines in Binoche's acting. A legend in her native France, and an Oscar-winner for the Hollywood epic The English Patient, here she is an ordinary, even at times frumpy, French-woman. With a shock of disheviled blond hair, Suzanne hardly looks like the beautiful Binoche we have come to expect. When she is performing the voice of the characters, though, her acting brilliance is on clear display. Alongside her, the amateur Song, playing herself is a little stiff, choppy in her delivery of the dialog, much of which was improvised by the actors themselves. Art imitating real life by becoming real life.

The cinematography, too, is unusual. There are many shots looking in and looking out of windows. The glass is a barrier to the camera and the viewer. We are almost like voyeurs looking at a private family, an ordinary life. Further, the movie is imbued with a red hue. In the apartment, the lighting through the red curtains makes the living room red while the kitchen, seen in the right third of the frame has a greenish tint. A contrast of primary colors. Indeed, in the home, the camera is almost unmoving, making us feel like visitors watching life happen.

And life happening is what Red Balloon is all about. The red balloon of the title, shows up sporadically throughout the film. At the start, there is a prolonged scene where the balloon, a large red, shiny balloon, floats away and is carried by the wind. It goes up, it comes down, it moves in unlikely ways, almost magically following Simon as he takes the metro to go home. Like the scene in American Beauty where Ricky makes a home video of the wind carrying a plastic bag and says it is the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed, the flight of this red balloon has a simplistic beauty that is almost transcendent. By the end, we are seeing red circles everywhere in the film: on walls, on traffic lights, on buses, etc.

It is debatable what the red balloon stands for. As a metaphor, it perhaps represents the randomness of life. As the red balloon goes where the wind takes it, so life is beyond our control. We are moved by the winds of destiny and chance, seemingly chaotic and confusing with a certain internal beauty and wonder. Jeffrey Overstreet, in his review for Christianity Today, sees the red balloon as standing for the joy of childhood, which disappears so soon leaving us colder and less playful. Seen alongside Simon and his descent into solitary games (pinball, Playstation), there may be truth in this interpretation.

The buoyant spirit of the red balloon marvelously illustrates the ups and downs of life. It reminds us that life is full of the ordinary events of living. We are on a journey, and that journey has its ups and downs. Carried on the winds of the Spirit of God, we often don't grasp the big picture, only seeing the vagaries of the intermediate steps. But what might seem random, even chaotic, does have a larger purpose in God's grand scheme. We need to adopt a perspective like that of Song, where we can handle life and change with grace and aplomb. With the Spirit of God as our comforter and guide (Jn. 14-16) we can do just that.

In one of the final scenes, Simon is vising an art museum with his class. His teacher leads them through an exercise of viewing a painting and describing what they see and how they feel. This painting contains a red balloon, and as they offer a diversity of thought, the red balloon momentarily appears at the window. Perhaps this is how Hou wants us to approach Red Balloon, as art to view and reflect on.

The Flight of the Red Balloon ends with the balloon flying away. Nothing is resolved. Life is like that. We want a happy ending, we want no loose ends. We only get that in a Hollywood movie. If that's what you want, stick to Bruce Willis; this one will bore you. But if you see film as art, or are open to this perspective, this is the ticket.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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