The Flight of the Red Balloon is the kind of film that you shouldn't see in certain moods. Don't go if you want to see a film packed with action or plot- because this is not the film that will satisfy you. It will instead annoy. The film is a meditation. We follow a red balloon across Paris in the first twenty minutes and then we follow a family, a single mother Suzanne, her son Simon, Simon's Chinese nanny Song and various other characters who come in and out of their lives. Always round the next corner or behind the window lurks a red balloon which follows Simon- and Song, a film student, is making a film about the presence of red balloons in Paris (a homage to the French film, Le Ballon Rouge).
The film is languid. It really does not have a plot- there are several plots but none of them connect or really have anything to do with each other. Suzzanah's friendship with Song steadily grows over the movie. There are episodes in which Song does favours for her, translating the work of a Chinese puppeteer for her, turning her father's old 88mm film into modern video and generally being the friend that Suzanne needs. Suzanne herself is faced with repeated troubles- she seems always rushing to do something else. A single mother, whose boyfriend Pierre is a feckless novelist staying in Montreal rather than facing his responsibilities, she has to work, keep her son happy and also manage her own property. The anarchy of modern city life is central to the film's perception of Suzanne's life.
The director's choice is to eschew story in favour of a sort of realism. Hence the film doesn't really go anywhere or does anything. Rather than that we see the contours of real life- which are difficult to perceive as a narrative, we live our lives in streams of events not in stories. In one sense therefore this story is a more realistic perception than you often get in films of what life is like. On the other hand there are reasons why film makers in the past have forced their perceptions of life into stories. It keeps people watching- film is not merely documentary, it is also entertainment and a film which does not entertain ultimately is a worthless film. Hsiao Hsien Hou attempts to add a magical element to his story via the traverse of the red balloon across the screen and musical interludes- this is an attempt to add both meaning and mystique to the plot. One is tempted to wonder about the metaphysical meaning of the balloon- some critics view that balloon as an image of the way that the past constantly touches the present in the movie.
I am not so sure that there is a deep philosophical meaning here or that it is an interesting one if it is present. Rather this film strikes me as the kind of film that excites film students and those who love cinematography. There are some wonderfully crafted shots- some truly exquisite moments of cinema. There are also some superb moments for the characters- all the actors here, particularly the excellent Juliette Binoche manage to capture their characters. But ultimately this is a film without a plot, and thought it may have a philosophical point, that point is not easy to capture or define. Just under 2 hours is a long time to spend with a film whose only reccomendation is the beauty of its shots and moments of excellence. It seems barbaric to dismiss this film but there is something disappointing for the non-film student. Paris is indeed beautiful, the cherubic Simon is charming- but there isn't much more to this film than that.
The Flight of the Red Balloon is a film student's failure. Having said that, if you want to see some beautiful shots of Paris and some charming acting, you'll like it. But it has no plot, no real point. It is just what it is- a piece of triviality which aspires to be something more, a piece of beauty that lasts a long time admiring itself- and ultimately an exquisite folly. See it if that's what you want, but if you don't, I'd reccomend something more mainstream.