On the fly doesn’t work for ‘Balloon’

Al Alexander

There’s barely enough air in “The Flight of the Red Balloon” to keep afloat its verite-style examination of a Parisian mother, her son and his Chinese immigrant nanny.

Little transpires beyond the mundane in an experimental film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien (“Three Times”) built entirely on improvisation. The idea is interesting in theory, but a disaster in execution.

The French cast, except for Simon Iteanu as the little boy, are convincing and it’s fun to see them working on the fly, especially Juliette Binoche (“Chocolat”) as the mother. But it plays too much like an extended acting class than a movie.

Literally, nothing happens over the course of nearly two hours. The characters don’t change, their situations don’t change, and neither does your indifference toward them.

You can’t look away, though, because the picture is so visually arresting, despite Hsien limiting himself to a single camera and relying almost entirely on long shots.

It’s intriguing, but it never takes you as far as you want to go, nor does it pay adequate homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic “The Red Balloon,” which was Hsien’s intent.

Binoche is sensational, however, as a divorced puppeteer struggling to make ends meet while futilely trying to multitask her way through a fractured home life worsened by her frustration over a deadbeat renter (Hippolyte Girardot) she’s dying to evict.

For a harried, frustrated woman, though, Binoche (her normally dark locks awash in peroxide) is a fiery, take-no-guff knockout.

Whenever she’s around, the movie sizzles. But whenever she yields to either the cute but talent-starved Iteanu, or Song Fang as the lad’s robotic nanny, the film flatlines.

At least we still have Paris, and it looks smashing, as does the title character, a bright red balloon periodically spotted diving, bounding and bouncing poetically across the scenic skyline. It’s free, unfettered and in perfect counterpoint to the stagnant, claustrophobic lives of its human counterparts.

The film also effectively captures the loneliness of a child victimized by divorce and shunned by his peers.

Like everything else in “Red Balloon,” though, his plight is so underdeveloped and devoid of gravity you can’t help feeling deflated.

The Patriot Ledger