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TORONTO - Juliette Binoche, introducing “Flight of the Red Balloon” to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, described the project as a “life-changing experience.”


A tad dramatic maybe, but hey, she’s an actress.


cover art

The Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge)

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Song Fang, Hippolyte Girardot, Louise Margolin

(IFC First Take; US theatrical: 4 Apr 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 14 Mar 2008 (General release); 2007)

Review [7.May.2008]

The next day, as she prepared to introduce another of her movies at the festival - Amos Gitai’s “Disengagement” - Binoche elaborated.


“I had never experienced such complete trust from a director,” she said, referring to Hou Hsiao Hsien, the Taiwanese filmmaker who took the 1956 children’s cinema classic “The Red Balloon” and, well, flew with it in his improvisational, slice-of-Parisian-life homage.


“There was a script, but it had no dialogue - none,” Binoche recalled with a hearty laugh during an interview in Toronto. “There were discussions about the story, but that was it. On the set, Hou just trusted us ... and now and then he would supply some facts that you needed to know to follow the story. And I was overwhelmed by that. I thought it was so generous.”


For most actors, working without dialogue, without lines to learn, can be a scary proposition - akin to a high-wire acrobat working without a net.


But after two meetings with Hou in which she wasn’t quite sure what tack to take, Binoche showed up on set inhabiting her character, Suzanne, a single mother, a puppeteer, an easily flustered and self-obsessed woman.


“It was addictive,” she said of working with Hou. “It’s a dangerous world, but it’s necessary, I think. Because you are your own artist, and you have to be responsible for your choices.”


Binoche, 44, won the supporting actress Oscar in 1997 for “The English Patient,” and has managed a career that dips into and out of Hollywood (most recently as Steve Carell’s love interest in last year’s “Dan in Real Life”).


Small, but with features that loom large on the screen, she has appeared in high-profile art house hits (“Cache,” “Chocolat,” “Damage”), did extraordinary work in “Blue,” the 1993 segment of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterwork trilogy “Three Colours,” and keeps busy - very busy - with international indies and European productions.


In Hou’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” the brunette Binoche sports short blond locks and an air of artsy disarray. For the actress, the character was all about the struggle to balance work with child rearing, the day-to-day business of life with one’s deeper spiritual and artistic needs.


“Being a single parent, trying to make a family life and yet struggling because you have to have your passion - that was the essence of the story for me,” she explained. “To be alive in the territory of artistic expression, and at the same time trying to make a living . ... And maintaining your sanity and not having a husband ... I mean, all the turmoil that you can go through in life, and I see a lot of people struggling like that in many cities - not just Paris.”


But Paris, and especially the artistic and multicultural facets of the storied city, are a big part of Hou’s film. So, of course, is the red balloon, a mysterious orb that floats across the frame - an onlooker, a symbol, a bit of whimsy.


“For me, the balloon represents the imagination,” Binoche mused. “In the original `Red Balloon’ it was the imagination of the child - and for children, the imagination is so active. And we still have it as adults, but it’s almost like we have to rediscover it, reclaim it, in order to carry on this inner life.


“Reality doesn’t always respond to our needs, and imagination is the saviour. It allows us to keep our sanity somehow.


“So, for me, it’s very meditative, those moments in the movie (with the balloon). It allows the warmth, the space. ... And also red is the color of life, of blood, of surviving.”


Binoche, who lives in Paris, has two children, a teenage son from a past relationship, and an 8-year-old daughter by the actor Benoît Magimel. Her current beau is Argentine writer/director Santiago Amigorena.


Next for Binoche is a film with the famed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, called “Certified Copy,” a love story set in Italy.


“I never think of myself as one of those people that plans out their life,” she said, discussing why she seems to go nonstop, from one project to the next. “But there were people I wanted to work with, movies that I wanted to make, and they just happen. How could I say no to Hou Hsiao Hsien? How could I say no to (“Dan in Real Life’s”) Peter Hedges? How could I say no to Abbas Kiarostami?


“You know, there’s a moment when you have to say yes - if the passion’s right. The need to explore human nature is what drives me.”


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