Flight of the Red Balloon was part of a planned series of films made in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to celebrate the museum’s 20th birthday. Although Jim Jarmusch and Raul Ruiz were initially involved in the project, Olivier Assayas’ L’heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008) was the only other feature produced. The directors’ brief was to use a painting in this collection of 19th century and early 20th century French art as a loose starting point for a film, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien chose Le ballon (1899) by the Swiss Post-Impressionist Félix Vallotton. It is only in Flight’s final scene that the painting appears – in details, obscured by light and reflections, never in a full establishing shot. The red ball or balloon being chased by a child in this painting may or may not have inspired Albert Lamorisse’s legendary short Le ballon rouge (1956), which the closing credits state served as a loose basis for Flight. Lamorisse’s imagery of an anthropomorphised balloon is central to Hou’s film, making its influence felt in the very first shot where schoolboy Simon (Simon Iteanu) tries to coax a red balloon from the trees beside a metro station.
These Art Nouveau designed train stations began operating soon after the painting of Vallotton’s Le ballon, and the constricting nature of transport – public and private – compared to the freedom of city walking becomes one of the film’s major themes. It is a conflict experienced by Song (Song Fang), a Chinese film-student in Paris who is making a work based on Le ballon rouge. Song is an obvious stand-in for Hou, making his first film outside Asia. She supports her studies by working as Simon’s au pair, living in the top-floor flat Simon shares with his divorcee mother. Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) works with a marionette company, providing voices and sound effects. Suzanne is also a landlady, and her apparently amiable and bohemian scattiness masks a grasping determination to have her own way (including the ejection of a troublesome tenant), even if everyone else attempts to ignore her desires. This includes her (offscreen) current partner, who has been in Canada for the last two years, allegedly writing a book.
Suzanne’s latent steeliness in the narrative reflects what Binoche brings to the film itself. Unlike, say, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou has long experience working with some of the most popular stars in Asia, and so finds it easier to accommodate Binoche into his narrative and filmic style than Kiarostami did in Certified Copy (Copie conforme, 2010), where the clash in styles between auteur and actress provided much of the film’s interest. In Flight, Hou uses Binoche as a formal element within his mise-en-scène – it is Suzanne’s nervous energy that brings his apparently leisurely and content-less long-takes into focus, and provides a bridge between scenes. Suzanne forces narrative into Hou’s undramatic scene-setting. This sounds dreadfully cold, but the effect is anything but. Binoche – as elsewhere in her career – brings warmth to what could have been a cold directorial exercise.
The risk of coldness is particularly great when the main character is a director. Song has an admirable but limited grasp of French (it is no surprise that her favourite French film is virtually silent). Her mantra is “D’accord”, okay, and she seems to be a figure of harmony and compromise in a milieu tending towards chaos. But in true Expressionist fashion, Song’s unspoken emotions (and as a domestic, Song isn’t expected to have feelings) are displaced onto the filmed world around her. Song’s and Hou’s shared interest in Le ballon rouge almost comically emphasises the colour red in every shot, with street art, products, clothes, transport, traffic lights, shop fronts and the like providing visual accents to greater or lesser degrees. Most ravishingly, the sunlight that filters into Suzanne’s apartment burnishes this domestic space with an orangey-reddish glow that at times makes Simon’s red-haired head – unwittingly centred in the frame – a substitute red balloon in its own right.
This space is also charged with barely suppressed violence and hysteria, and a sense of Song’s alienation is conveyed in other features of the film. It is a cliché of criticism that a visiting artist will look at the host environment in a new and unconventional way. But someone has been here before – another of the film’s themes. Hou’s focus on characters’ images lost, fragmented or multiplied in reflected glass, mirrors or architectural frames evokes another classic film by a foreigner in Paris, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 a 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962), a film that also focused on the fraught interaction between a flãneuse and her urban surroundings. Like Varda, Hou plays with point-of-view, perspective and timescale, so that it is not always clear whether or not we’re looking at a reflection or a flashback, or where or when one scene ends and the next begins. The jolts such tricks provide in a film ostensibly uniform in tone serve to convey Song’s alienation as well as her sense of discovery in this new city. Paris is a city that has been immortalised in images by artists before her, in the fine arts as well as film.
The painting Le ballon – in which the playing child is alienated formally and spatially from the adults sharing the garden – may only feature in Flight’s closing minutes, but Hou has absorbed Vallotton’s work and diffused its themes and strategies throughout his film. A member of the avant-garde Les Nabis group, Vallotton’s woodcuts and paintings – inspired by Japanese prints – flatten space and upend perspective in a way Hou frequently imitates in Flight. Similarly, Vallotton’s work combines images of crowded city life (often focusing on women and children), depicted from disorienting angles, to intimiste, warmly-coloured, Dutch-influenced interiors, usually inhabited by solitary women. In both kinds of settings – as in Hou’s film – the boundaries between public and private space are often porous. One particular work, Misia à sa coiffeuse (Misia at her dressing table), the portrait of a writer’s wife painted the year before Le ballon, may be the inspiration for the extraordinary sequence in Flight where Suzanne takes stock at her dressing table while refusing to engage in conversation with a neighbour. Another portrait shows a Romanian in a red dress very similar to one Suzanne wears mid-way through this film. By absorbing Vallotton in this way and reconstituting one visual art form as another, Hou pays both the artist and the Musée d’Orsay a more profound compliment than he would have using the artwork as mere pretext.
Flight of the red balloon (2007 France 110 min)
Prod Co: Margofilms & Les Films du Lendemain Prod: François Margolin & Kristina Larsen Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien Scr: Hou Hsiao Hsien & François Margolin, loosely based on the film Le ballon rouge by Albert Lamorisse Phot: Mark Lee Ping Bing & Yorick le Saux Ed: Jean-Christophe Hym & Ching-Song Liao
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Song Fan, Simon Iteanu.