Seven-year-old Simon’s communion with it, and his attempt to get a tiny grip on it, precede a red balloon’s ascension to the Paris skies. Thereafter, at liberty, it becomes a floating cherry moon possibly safeguarding the child, passing by windows and punctuating his childhood with its gracious presence. Simon does not see it, although his innocence may have conjured it, and it appears to counterbalance his confusions; we see it, though, and it refreshes our dormant sense of childhood wonder.
Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Parisian holiday, Le voyage du ballon rouge, is a fragile, lovely, elusive thing, to which each sight of the red balloon brings a brief moment of visionary clarity. The film is haunted by other films, including Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 The Red Balloon, something, I confess, I do not care for (for me, it is thin and a bit precious), and some of Hou’s past films, for instance, Café Lumière (2003), whose rhythm it adopts, its aura of aimless time, and The Puppermaster (1993). Simon’s single mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche, superb—and unexpectedly blonde), is herself a puppeteer, a borderline frenetic personality, almost always at loose ends, who comes to Earth when she imaginatively soars by giving voices to her made-up characters. Her fleeting performances are as magical, as insubstantial yet achingly real, as her son’s free, unfettered balloon.
Suzanne has hired Song, a Chinese film student, to be Simon’s nanny. Also inspired by Lamorisse’s most famous film, Song casts Simon in the film she is working on, helping to create an image of the boy that, unlike the red balloon now, he himself will be able to see. It is a brief appearance—like everything else in Hou’s gorgeous film, something poised to dissolve into either shadow or sunlight.
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