Friday, December 31, 2010

Albert Lamorisse | The Red Balloon and Hsiao-hsien Hou | Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon)

by Douglas Messerli

Albert Lamorisse (writer and director) Le Ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) / 1956
Hsiao-hsien Hou and Fran├žois Margolin (writers), Hsiao-hsien Hou (director) Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon) / 2007

In Albert Lamorisse’s wordless classic of 1956, The Red Balloon—a movie I saw as a young man and watched again the other day—a bright cherry-red balloon is retrieved from a balcony by a young French boy, who befriends the object to such a degree that he risks being late to school (he is not allowed to take the balloon on the streetcar) and puts it into the hands of the school janitor for safe-keeping until the end of the day. By the time he has reached home that evening, the balloon and he have developed such a close “friendship” that the red globe patiently waits by the boy’s window until it can be retrieved, and the next morning plays with Pascal, following, rising above, and darting ahead on their voyage through the streets of Monmartre.

The Monmartre of Lamorisse’s film is a post world-war II landscape that reveals many of the buildings in decay and collapse, where the narrow side-streets are filled with boys, like the Roman raggazzi, looking for trouble and a good fight. Accordingly, the young hero and his beloved balloon are not simply involved in a relationship of admirer and admired but soon come to represent an alternative to the high-spirited street boys, who repeatedly attempt to shoot down and destroy the dancing globe on a string. Lamorisse’s red balloon is thus quickly transformed from a bouncing toy into a magical image of freedom and potentiality, and his simple tale rises to the level of fable and myth. Traveling the city with his new-found friend, the balloon’s adventures seem as limitless as the boy’s love and trust.

When the street urchins finally hit the mark, deflating the balloon and destroying it with a sling shot, all the balloons in Paris free themselves from their posting, coming to the boy’s aid and, as he gathers them in, buoying him up into a fabulous ride above the city itself, symbolizing a wondrous escape of the narrow confines of the past.

Twainese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon is at once an understated homage to this great film, a film of formal beauty, and a strangely amorphous work of improvisation. Although Hou and co-writer Margolin provided the cast (the young boy, Simon Iteanu; his mother, Juliette Binoche; and his new nanny Fang Song) with a detailed scenario and back stories of the characters, cast members were asked to improvise their dialogue. One can imagine such a loose structure producing disastrous results; indeed several critics of this movie felt that it lacked any structure or significant “meaning.” But in fact the film has a great deal of significance—it is only that it says what it has to say in terms of cinematic images rather than long linguistic interchanges.

That does not mean that the characters have nothing to say. Binoche, in particular, presents us with a wide range of actions and reactions that clearly signifies a woman on the edge. As a single mother (her companion has bolted to Canada with her other child, a young girl), faced with financial difficulties (she works as a puppeteer for a children’s theater), Suzanne is forced to balance her obvious love and devotion to her child with having to face the daily frustrations of a tenant (a former friend of her boyfriend/husband) who refuses to pay rent while assuming that he has the right to use her kitchen to cook grand gourmet and outrageously messy meals for his girlfriend and other guests. Her small, cozy apartment is for her thus both a cave of protection and a terminal where all those who might bother and threaten her gather. Binoche brilliantly alternates her gentle ability to survive and love with explosions of frustration and rage; her search for order—represented most clearly in her hiring a nanny to oversee her son— continually is coming into conflict with the disorder of her life represented in the clutter of her overstuffed rooms and her personal ruffled, disheveled appearance which, at times, she is able to stylishly allay. With a dyed blonde head of hair that looks as if she has just risen from her bed, she compensates with layers of clothing, beads against shoulder bags, leather rubbing against silk. In short, she is a volcano of emotional stress, gracefully bending to embrace her son Simon a second before she explodes into anger over the law suit she must bring against the man who lives below. It is as if all the dangerous, winding, streets of Lamorisse’s Monmartre had been encapsulated into one room, one life.

For all of that, we also recognize these crowded rooms as warm, life-giving centers as the innocent Simon and the amazingly calm and centered Song come to better know one another and form a close bond. The balloon of Lamorisse’s film is in Hou’s film largely symbolic, appearing primarily at the beginning and the end of the film, popping by for quick visits only now and then, floating mostly unnoticed outside windows and doors. Song, the nanny, is in fact what the balloon was in the earlier film. Herself a student filmmaker, she tells her young charge about the earlier film, explaining that she is filming a movie about a red balloon. The imaginative world created by the balloon in The Red Balloon is in The Flight gently imparted by the nanny, as she gradually extricates the private world of the lonely Simon and enters the intimate secrets of his life. And just as she invokes and shares the magic of the Paris streets with her charge, she translates the stories and wisdom of a Chinese puppeteer for Suzanne, whose new production involves ancient methods and themes.

Whereas in Lamorisse’s work people in general, unable to accept and comprehend the message of the balloons, were to be feared and shunned, in Hou’s version people must find their freedom within themselves, the balloon is merely a thing, an abstract symbol. It is as if in the fifty some years since the original film, the anthropomorphized object has learned to stay away from both little boys and slings and arrows of those around them. Hou’s red balloon hovers over a museum gathering of children as a simple confirmation of the interpretive interchange they have just had with art. Only in the mind can an object carry meaning and in the mind alone can an object effect a human life.

Los Angeles, January 5, 2008

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