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CANNES — Albert Lamorisse’s transcendent 1956 film “Le Ballon Rouge” is more vital than this hodge-podge homage from Taipei filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien. Weighted with the dreary ballast of a heavy-themed family saga and grounded by the conceit of letting the players ad-lib their dialogue, “Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge” (Flight of the Red Balloon) drifts, poofs and ultimately flops. Audiences may rightly discern that this “Balloon” is in both form and content an egg.
Bad hair, rather than the pliant red balloon, is the central image of this dolorous monotony. Hou shoots mostly from the side, so we’re constantly subjected to the side profiles of all the players: the beatific kid, Simon; the frazzled mother, Suzanne; the implacable Chinese nanny, and the melanges of mangy others. Such a sideways visual strategy does little to draw us to the characters, and, most egregiously, we never come to care about this modern-day family.
In this demi-ditty, mop-haired Simon is a quiet kid who endures stoically the shrill hysterics of his theatrical mother, Suzanne. He tries to draw away into his own world of old-style pinball games, but he’s undeniably stunted by his crummy family life and his mother’s relentlessly flaky hysterics. Rounding out this familial menagerie is Song, a stoic Chinese film student who acts as the boy’s nanny while the mother is preoccupied with her career as a vocal artist for a puppet company.
Without delineating the details of this family portrait, suffice it to say that Hou has further enervated the already drab proceedings with dull padding: a piano lesson for beginner Simon, or several snatches of Simon’s simple pleasure, playing pinball. Other banalities abound, in large part courtesy to the conceit of not writing dialogue in the script and the choice of shooting in long or side shot. Unfortunately, Hou does not merge these aesthetics by mitigating the bad dialogue by shooting it long, out of earshot.
The imagery of the classic movie, where a spirited red balloon wafts unpredictably over Paris, never even attempts to reach a metaphorical height, nor does it even engage us compositionally. For the most part, the heart of the classic is transmuted through the film-student lens of the foreign film student, such is the minimalist scope of this piffle.
In her performance as the dark-rooted, bottle-blonde, mother artiste, Juliette Binoche soars. She delivers a wondrously conflicted gaggle of emotions and movements. Archly irritating, she is nonetheless sympathetic in her flailing. As such, the film might be retro-titled from “Red Balloon” to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Indeed, since the balloon does not appear all that often, a few snippets of the editor’s tool might align this movie mess, at least in theme, with another grander film with at least a more similar theme.
As the beatific child, Simon Iteanu sports a thick and tossed neo-Beatles look and seems to have an intriguing face, when we’re permitted to see it. However, his performance, if he delivered one, is obscured by the obscure framings and, most clearly, Hou’s tenuous grasp on trying to figure out what movie he was making, or in this case, what classic film he was defiling.
LE VOYAGE DU BALLON ROUGE (FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON)
3 H Prods, Margo Films, Les Films du Lendemain
Director: Hou Hsiao Hsien
Writers: Hou Hsiao Hsien, Francois Margolin
Producers: Francois Margolin, Kristina Larsen
Directors of photography: Yorick Lesauz, Mark Lee Ping Bing
Production designer: Paul Fayard
Editors: Jean-Christophe Hym, Ching Sung Liao
Suzanne: Juliet Binoche
Simon: Simon Iteanu
Song: Song Fang
Marc: Hippolyte Girardo
Louise: Louise Margolin
Running time — 118 minutes
No MPAA rating
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