When I heard that a re-make of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short, The Red Balloon, was in the works, I wondered: how could such a film (about a boy in Paris who spends a day with a seemingly sentient red balloon) work today? And when I heard that the updated version was a project commissioned by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay (to celebrate their 20th anniversary) and would be directed by acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times), my curiosity was piqued.
I saw the new version this weekend, and I was absolutely blown away. It surpassed all my expectations and quickly jumped to the second spot (behind Paranoid Park) on my best of 2008 list so far. The film is less a remake of Lamorisse’s Oscar-winning version than it is an homage. The original film was only 34 minutes in length and free of dialogue; the 2008 version is 130 minutes and only intermittently “about” a red balloon.
One thing that I am always a fan of is out-of-the-box adaptation. That is: a film that takes inspiration from something else in theme, tone, and perhaps style, but which becomes something undeniably new in the process. A great adaptation works within an aesthetic context and frame, but expands and personalizes it as well. Hou’s work here maintains an uncanny respect and fidelity to the original, and yet pushes it further in to the mystical and metaphorical—as well as the geocultural.
It is totally fitting that a film so thoroughly about Paris is realized, in 2008, by a Taiwanese artist with a decidedly eastern sensibility. The significance of this is at least twofold: first, because we live in a globalized world and Paris—as anyone who has been there in recent years can attest—is a thoroughly international city. Secondly, the subject upon which The Red Balloon meditated (childhood), is no longer a solely western concept. The ideal of childhood (as innocent, light, and fancy free—like a red balloon) is something the whole world can relate to.
In his envisioning of The Red Balloon, however, Hou mixes in some cold, hard reality. The film opens with seven-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) walking around Paris, and then riding a subway, with a curious red balloon following his every move. The literal adaptation pretty much ends here.
The rest of the film is also centered around Simon’s life, but the red balloon—which infrequently appears outside Simon’s bedroom window—is relegated to the fringes, to the spaces outside the frame. Instead, we get two hours of thoroughly compelling slice-of-life observance of Simon’s daily routine, along with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), his nanny Song (Song Fang), and various other characters who float in and out of the story.
The film is, in many respects, about the juxtaposition of child and adult life. Simon and Suzanne represent the two extremes, while Song seems to occupy a place somewhere in the middle. Song is a film student in Paris for school (from Taiwan originally), and her role as nanny is one of protecting Simon’s childhood innocence, while mediating between the various “adult” intrusions that invade the family’s spaces. Song is a quiet, almost passive presence, and seems to represent the perspective of Hou—an Asian “outsider” standing on the margins, offering the artistic filter and frame wherein we can observe this family.
Suzanne is the opposite of Song: she is as frazzled and vivacious as her out-of-control blonde hair. Every scene with Suzanne becomes a three-ring circus of intensified emotion, amped up rhythm, and chaotic conflict. Juliette Binoche shines in what I think is her best performance since Blue. She is utterly familiar as the “barely keeping it together” single mom—sometimes strong, sometimes undone, but always busying herself with something. She is a striking contrast to Simon (and Song, for that matter), who lives life at a leisurely pace, wowed by the little things (pinball, video games, statues in the park, paintings at the museum) and never too disturbed by the big ones.
Still, Simon’s childhood can’t help but be victimized by his chaotic surroundings. His parents are divorced, his stepsister (his closest friend) is in Belgium, and his mother is—on her good days—a basketcase. As such, the magic red balloon (which Hou employs as a poetic symbol and aesthetic device) is sadly marginal to Simon’s existence. It shows up more in mediated form (painted on a wall, captured on Song’s digital video camera) than in physical reality—an interesting statement on the hyper-mediation of contemporary youth.
Indeed, the film’s reflexive comments on art (seen mostly through the character of Song with her video shooting, or Suzanne’s job as a puppeteer) are quite interesting. There is a sense here that “childhood” is more of an aesthetic construction than physical reality—borne out of decades of children’s literature, fairy stories, puppet shows, etc… But the film is also highly concerned with the redeeming of physical reality as such. There is a child-like wonder to be found beneath the surfaces, materials, and cadences of existence, Hou seems to infer. His camera is intensely observant in the way that a young child is—focusing on the things that exist and the actions that are happening in front of his eyes. He is not concerned with abstraction or complexity, just observing the curious circumstances of daily life. And it makes for some truly gorgeous cinema.
There is something otherworldly about the mundane goings-on of this film—the everyday household activities and structures of normality that Hou’s camera is so captivated by. A good example of the sort of “entrancing everydayness” that this film captures is its recurring focus on a rather unimpressive domestic object: an old upright piano. For long stretches of time (usually unbroken shots), we find ourselves watching Simon receive a piano lesson, but then the camera is diverted to other movement in the room: a tenant cleaning up from a party the night before, Song watching in stately observance). We later see the piano being moved up the stairs to another apartment unit, and then another scene is devoted to its being tuned (by a charming blind tuner).
I don’t know that I can articulate the unexpected beauty of these scenes—which, like most in the film—serve no purpose for anything you might call “plot,” insofar as that even exists here. All I can do is say that the everyday, when as lovingly and observantly rendered as it is here, is certainly a site of transcendent beauty. Paul Schrader once wrote (in Transcendental Style in Film), that “transcendental artists” use the mundane representation of life to “prepare reality for the intrusion of the Transcendent.” The everyday, he wrote, “celebrates the bare threshold of existence, those banal occurrences which separate the living from the dead, the physical from the material, those occurrences which so many people equate with life itself.” When we are focused upon this root level of existence (and cinema—perhaps more than any other art—can focus us on everyday reality), we begin to see the beauty and mystery of life itself. The Flight of the Red Balloon uses this tactic to great effect. It is one of the alive films I have ever seen.