I'm in the swing of things here. I've already consumed coffee after 10 p.m. and wine before noon, and I was able to summon up the right French word to mutter under my breath at the Russian TV reporter with a bad face-lift who shoved her way in front of me in line, announcing that her press credential was more high-class than mine. (She was quite right about that.) More important, I've just had my first dose of Cannes magic, when the obnoxious crush on the sun-baked sidewalk outside the theater is followed by cinematic rapture in the dark.
Late in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Flight of the Red Balloon," a class of schoolchildren goes to a museum with their teacher to see Félix Vallotton's painting "The Balloon." When she asks them whether it's a happy painting or a sad painting, there are various responses, but some of the kids observe that part of the canvas is light and part is dark, so it's both happy and sad. That's exactly the way to describe Hou's marvelous film as well.
There's some internal film-world controversy about why "The Flight of the Red Balloon" -- a film shot in Paris and inspired by Albert Lamorisse's 1956 children's classic "The Red Balloon" -- wound up as the opening film of the Certain Regard sidebar competition here, rather than being included in the main selection. I can't explain it to you, but having seen the results of this cinematic master's journey to Paris I really don't care. If I see no film better than this one at Cannes this year, I'll leave a happy man.
One of the mini-themes of this festival is East-West collaboration, in unlikely or unexpected forms. Wong Kar-wai's English-language "My Blueberry Nights," which opened the main competition, is lovely, self-indulgent, distinctly ungainly; two days later I'm still not sure if its merits outweigh its flaws. "The Flight of the Red Balloon," on the other hand, is a work of tremendous precision and heartfelt emotion, made by one of the great artists in the medium.
Like most of Hou's films (which include "The Puppetmaster," "Flowers of Shanghai" and the recent "Three Times"), this is a subtle, unshowy affair. Hou has taken the essential vocabulary of Lamorisse's film -- a lonely little boy, a magical red balloon and the streets of Paris, shot in an attenuated color palette -- and turned it into a gentle domestic comedy that becomes deeper, sadder and more mysterious as it goes along, stretching from real estate to divorce to the techniques of digital filmmaking and the limitless power of the imagination.
The boy in Hou's film, Simon (Simon Iteanu), belongs to the 21st century, not the sad postwar Paris of the '50s. He's got a Playstation and he's never even heard of Lamorisse's film. His new baby sitter (Song Fang), a film student from China, casts Simon in her own homage to "The Red Balloon," hiring a man in a green suit to follow him around with a balloon (because he'll be easy to mask digitally later). Yet Hou also wants to assure us that not all red balloons are technical tricks; there's another one that follows Simon around, and it might be symbolic or psychological or whatever you want, but Song didn't make it happen.
Simon's harried mom is marvelously played by French star Juliette Binoche. She rushes through shots, dropping things with a crash and then tripping over them. She wears half-baked outfits, and her hair stands on end. She's been semi-deserted by her husband, who's in Montreal writing an endless novel. She's feuding with the downstairs tenants, supposedly her friends, over their unpaid rent. The tiny flat she shares with Simon is cluttered, chaotic, claustrophobic. She's almost entirely a disaster in conventional parenting terms, but she loves Simon without reservation, and when we watch her at work -- she reads all the parts for a puppet troupe, and I could listen to Binoche do that for hours -- you realize how lucky he really is to have such a mother.
You can watch this whole movie without even noticing Hou's elegant, theatrically constructed shots, which often go on for several minutes while the characters make sandwiches, bash into lamps, misunderstand each other and generally conduct their lives. Several people walked out of the premiere and I can only assume they were bored by this stuff. I'm not so naive as to think there's a large audience for Hou's films in America (or anywhere else, really). But "The Flight of the Red Balloon" is not arty or difficult in any way, and I genuinely believe that, in its unassuming fashion, it's a masterpiece. Hou has approached one of the best-loved films in cinema history and the iconic, too-often-photographed scenery of Paris, and composed them into a bittersweet comic valentine that honors the originals but feels fully contemporary.
Those of us who stayed got on our feet and clapped as the reticent Hou and the radiant Binoche linked arms and left the theater together. As they walked past me I could see that both of them had been crying, with what set of emotions I can only imagine. Then we all followed them out into the night. I looked for my own red balloon, but couldn't see it among the palm trees and the seagulls, wheeling in great clouds above the roof spotlights of the beachfront hotels.
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