Inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s celebrated 34-minute film dating from 1956, Le Ballon Rouge, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made a considerably longer movie on the same subject: a small boy is followed through Paris by a mysterious red balloon. If ever there were a parable for the way so many modern films seem to be made, this is it. Length before strength (as my grandmother used to repeat while teaching me how to play bridge).
Yet, to say that Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge is overlong would not do justice to this extraordinary meditation on present-day Paris. If ever you are feeling nostalgic for the everyday reality of the city and its various forms of transport, simply watch the first 15 minutes of this film. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is less interested in making dramatic plot progressions than observing the often humdrum reality of people’s lives, using often stunning imagery.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Suzanne (beautifully played by a blonde Juliette Binoche), her young son Simon (Simon Iteanu) and his Chinese babysitter Song (Song Fang). Suzanne, whose husband seems to have abandoned her to live in Montreal, struggles to balance her job (she provides the voices for a puppet theater), a tenant who will not pay his rent (a hilarious cameo by Hippolyte Girardot) and caring for her son.
Most of the scenes seem to have been improvised, and at times it is easy to forget that one is even watching actors playing their parts. Binoche in particular shows what makes her such an wonderfully versatile actress. This movie is worth seeing for her performance alone, but all the other actors are excellent, too. This naturalistic acting, however, sometimes sits uneasily with the symbolism of the red balloon.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien loves such awkward juxtapositions: the clash between Chinese and French cultures, between ancient arts (such as puppetry) and modern gadgets (the young boy playing computer games and the many telephone conversations that punctuate the movie), and of course, implicitly, between the postwar Paris of Lamorisse’s film and the 21st-century Paris of this version.
Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge was co-produced by the Musée d’Orsay, and, perhaps inevitably, the movie ends when Simon’s school class visits the museum and looks at Félix Vallotton’s 1899 painting “Le Ballon.” While the other pupils stare at the painting, Simon gazes upwards as the red balloon that has followed him throughout floats over the Paris skyline.