A balloon in the Croisette sky
by Vitor Pinto
Cannes section Un Certain Regard officially opened this morning with the screening of Flight of the Red Balloon [+see also:
film profile], the eagerly anticipated new film by Hou Hsiao Hsien, which marks the Taiwanese filmmaker’s first foray into a majority western production. The result is a French film with a contemplative and slow, lyrical approach (so characteristic to Asian arthouse films) that received enthusiastic – albeit not thrilled – applause at the end of its screening.
A presumed tribute on the part of Hou Hsiao Hsien to Albert Lamorisse’s Le ballon rouge – Palme d'Or winner for Best Short Film at Cannes 1956 – the film focuses on the life of Suzanne (a puppeteer played by Juliette Binoche), who hires a Taiwanese film student (Song Fang) to help her with her seven year-old son Simon (Simon Iteanu). Like in Lamorisse's film, a red balloon follows Simon throughout the streets of Paris, while his minder Song begins to shoot this unexpected, imaginary friendship.
Hou's long shots of the balloon against the Parisian sky – dancing over the city's grey rooftops and around its emblematic monuments – gives the film an inspired atmosphere, almost turning it into a declaration of love to Paris. However, beyond this entirely poetical dimension, the film explores the daily problems of Suzanne and, paradoxically, this is when the script becomes stronger and effectively manages to communicate with the audience.
Binoche gives a remarkable performance as a mother overwhelmed by the rhythm of her life and stuck in an unsatisfactory relationship. Violently breaking with silent scenes, the actress gets the best lines of the script, constantly interrupting other characters, sparkling in contradictory emotions and also managing to thrill us when her character is giving voice to a puppet play – a scenic element so dear to other of the director’s films as well.
Flight of the Red Balloon is the first of four titles to be produced in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay. The only condition to these works is that the museum must appear at least once in the film, which is resolved here towards the end, with Simon's class being given a lecture on "Le Ballon", a painting by Swiss artist Félix Vallotton that can be seen in the famous Parisian museum. The painting – of a child looking at a red balloon with two women on the background – functions as a metaphor of the plot itself, with one of Simon's little mates describing it as simultaneously sad and happy, due to its contrasting dark and light colours.
Produced by Margo Films and Les Films du Lendemain, in co-production with Arte France Cinéma and in partnership with the Musée d'Orsay, Flight of the Red Balloon is one of the most prominent titles of Films Distribution line-up, to be negotiated in the film market parallel to the festival.
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