A strong central performance from Juliette Binoche holds together this slow, sedantary new film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose elegantly composed long takes always seemed in danger of sending me to a peaceful slumber, had I not had that double espresso before the screening. Binoche plays a Parisian mother-of-two who works as a voice for puppet shows, but is in little control of her own life; she shares a cramped Parisian apartment with her young son Simon, the downstairs section of which is somewhat unwelcomely occupied by a friend of her estranged husband, who has decamped to Montreal. As we join the story, she has just hired a new childminder for Simon, a young Asian film student called Song.
It is through the eyes of this newcomer to Paris that we see the city, a metaphorical vehicle for director Hou’s unfamiliarity with a new continent for this, his first European-based project. The balloon of the title is occasionally shown floating above the city’s streets, seen depicted in wall murals, in a painting at the Musee D’Orsay, and climactically referenced in a song. Its slow, smooth progress around is mimicked by Hou’s deliberately languid long takes, forming a highly impressionistic portrait of the French capital.
There is little story to really concentrate on; Binoche’s Suzanne permanently ping-pongs through a series of mini-crises, from her comically malfunctioning car to trying to move a piano upstairs. Could any other actress of her generation so charmingly and eccentrically play the part of a harried puppeteer? Instead of plotting, the film asks us to meditate on the nature of artifice, represented here by the puppet shows, the roaming red balloon, and film student Song’s incessant camcorder. The conflict between old and new technology appears as another major theme. It will divide audiences – after about 40 minutes of nothing much really happening, one will either go with it or head grumbling towards the exit. Personally, I found enough in its strange curiosity, elegant camerawork and the sheer watchability of Juliette Binoche’s performance to sustain me through the two hours. Others may not be so patient.