Most beautiful film of the year. Period.
But if you rely solely on a clear-cut plotline to guide you through a movie, Flight of the Red Balloon might not be for you. Like a number of great films, Flight of the Red Balloon is much more about atmosphere and tone and feeling than it is about story. In fact, one could argue that there's not much story in Flight of the Red Balloon at all.
Flight of the Red Balloon is inspired and, to an extent, informed by Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short film The Red Balloon. Some say that Flight of the Red Balloon is "based on" Lamorisse's film but, while that statement is at least partly accurate, I find the language too strong. I've also seen Flight of the Red Balloon called a remake of The Red Balloon, an idea I believe to be ridiculous and a disservice to both films. Despite obvious similarities, both films are very much their own entities. If anything, director Hou Hsiao Hsien seems to have viewed Lamorisse's film as a jumping-off point.
The film is about Simon (Simon Iteanu), a 7-year-old boy who lives in Paris with his mom and who has a sometimes companion/shadow in the form of--you guessed it--a red balloon. His mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), is a puppeteer and a bit of a drama queen, though it's not difficult to sympathize with her. She is essentially a single mother (her husband is a writer living in Montreal, and relations between the two don't exactly seem warm), not only to Simon but also to her older daughter, Louise, who lives in Belgium. And beside her motherly duties, she's got a lot on her plate at work, where she is planning the production of her latest show. Enter Song (Song Fang), a Taiwanese film student studying in Paris, and Simon's newly hired babysitter.
Suzanne is constantly juggling the ins and outs of everyday life. Song and Simon spend their days exploring Paris together. The red balloon tags along. That's your story, in a nutshell. No, it isn't much, but it doesn't need to be.
Suzanne is a vibrant woman whose life is anything but routine. Rarely does a film allow a character's day-to-day activities stand on their own without supplementing them with some sort of unlikely, unnecessary drama. Suzanne's life is full of real problems and real joys; it is not dull, nor is it easy. No murders or affairs are required to make things interesting.
And Simon is an intelligent, inquisitive child. His interactions with those around him (Suzanne, Song, his piano teacher, the red balloon, his absent-but-not-forgotten sister) are genuine and remarkable. He is the picture of honest innocence, the heart of the film.
And Song, the foreigner, the outsider, the invited observer. In certain ways, Song is the audience's in-film proxy. A film student, she makes videos of her Parisian adventures with Simon. And she is present for many personal, emotional moments at Suzanne and Simon's apartment. Not unlike those of us sitting on the other side of the screen, Song is positioned to take everything in without becoming too deeply involved.
And then there is the red balloon. Almost a spectre, the red balloon floats or bobs into scenes then back out of them unassumingly, inviting the audience to watch and, if we wish, to guess at its significance. More often than not, the balloon seems to be a sort of imaginary friend to Simon. A comfortable companion that appears when it is needed, but can be fleeting. It sometimes seems that only Simon sees the balloon and that it is in some way the manifestation of his innocence as a child; it separates him from the grown-ups and their problems.
The dance between the red balloon and the city of Paris is a graceful one. Paris is perhaps the unsung character in this film. After seeing Paris, je t'aime in 2007 and Flight of the Red Balloon twice last Spring, I am convinced that the city is a place I must visit. I cannot begin to describe the beauty of the place, as portrayed in this film. Paris is Simon and Song's playground and, time and again, without fail, it captures the eye and the heart. If a place can be so enchanting on-screen, I can only imagine what it might make a person feel to be there.
Like the wedding in Rachel Getting Married, Flight of the Red Balloon makes the viewer want to be where the film is. To step into the scene is the only way the experience could be more real.
On the whole, Flight of the Red Balloon seems to have received a favorable critical review. But many of the "average viewer" comments I've read have been less than flattering. People just don't get it. They're bored by the film and don't understand why nothing happens. Such is the nature of Flight of the Red Balloon and films like it (Kieslowski and Wenders have made similarly "boring" films, I think). If you watch a movie like Flight of the Red Balloon with the intention of "getting" it, you've already missed the point. This is not a movie you understand, but a movie you feel. It's not about the things that happen to the characters as much as it's about observing their lives and feeling what they might feel. Or feeling something completely different! It's beauty in cinematic form and if it doesn't make sense to you--if you don't feel it--you're out of luck. You either feel this film, or you don't; no amount of explanation can change that.