Like his 2004 film "Cafe Lumiere," Hou Hsiao-hsien's sublime new movie "The Flight of the Red Balloon" finds the director in a foreign country paying homage to another filmmaker. With "Lumiere," Yasujiro Ozu was Hou's reference point and Tokyo his canvas; here, Hou reimagines Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 short "The Red Balloon" as a Parisian family melodrama. Hou's film, much like Lamorisse's, opens with the magnificent titular object hovering barely out of the reach of seven-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu); as he gets on the Metro, it floats just above the station, drifting up into the trees. The balloon, and by proxy Lamorisse's film, serves as our point of departure -- our way into Simon's world and our guide through the streets of Paris -- but the delicate, charming, quietly heartbreaking portrait of childhood and family that follows is distinctively and unforgettably Hou.
Simon lives alone with his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), who performs vocals in a puppet show and seems to spend most of her time at rehearsals, workshops, and performances. Suzanne's long-term partner is more or less out of the picture -- he moved to Montreal to work on a book and never returned -- and her daughter Louise lives with her grandfather in Brussels. At the beginning of the film, Suzanne hires a Chinese film student named Song (Song Fang) to take care of Simon. Hou's camera captures this displaced foreigner and the adorable but vaguely sad boy in her charge as they walk along the streets of Paris, tentatively introducing themselves to one another. Later, he shoots Simon from outside a window as he silently plays pinball, with the bustling street reflected on the glass in front of him. Hou's long shots and long takes are tender portraits of loneliness, images of great intimacy set against a lovely but overwhelming cityscape.
Hou's movies are always beautiful, but they sometimes suffer from a certain austerity, an emphasis on intellect over emotion. The same respectful criticism could be leveled against Binoche, who even in her most precise and effective performances ("Blue," "Code Unknown," "Cache") nevertheless remains somewhat remote, a thinking moviegoer's actress. Here, her Suzanne is anything but heady or distant. She's messy, easily distracted, mercurial, creative, selfish, and volatile, the sort of person who asks favors without realizing they are favors (she requests that Song transfer 8 mm home movies to DVD as if she were asking her to pass the salt) and gives gifts that are meaningful only to herself (offering a Chinese puppeteer a postcard from the British Museum simply because she had kept it for many years). That she loves Simon is beyond dispute, and yet she has an argument over the phone in front her son, insisting, "There's no one beside me!" Simon objects that he is beside her, but Suzanne ignores his protestations. Another performer might have romanticized or demonized this charismatic but selfish woman -- she's a bundle of thrilling creative energy and desperate emotional need -- but Binoche simply inhabits her. Suzanne emerges as someone appealingly flawed, full-blooded, and vividly real. It's a thoroughly astonishing performance that ranks as one of the finest the actress has yet delivered.
Binoche's deceptive effortlessness is appropriate for a film that has a deliberate lack of momentum: the central drama concerns a real-estate dispute; the dialogue is improvised; the camera pans and tilts mostly from a fixed position, usually within one room. But the level of craft on display (in her performance, in Hou's rigorous command of mise-en-scene and elegant camera movement, and in Mark Lee Ping Bing's exquisite cinematography) is staggering. "The Flight of the Red Balloon" could be described as quiet or mundane -- a camera pans across the floor of an apartment, cluttered with papers that have been pulled out of drawers in a fruitless attempt to locate a missing document; a boy scolds his mother after she inadvertently knocks a lamp; a woman takes a picture of her two children at play. Emotional undercurrents rise and linger just beneath the surface, and these small moments accumulate, laying bare an enveloping human drama at once unassuming and profound, serene and searing.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and director of education at the Museum of the Moving Image.]