Imagine "The Nanny Diaries," without the New York attractions, romance or wit.
With "Flight of the Red Balloon," director Hsiao-hsien Hou, has updated "The Red Balloon," the beautiful 1956 story of warmth and innocence, and injected raw reality: breakups, real estate, and most jarring -- parental neglect.
To counteract this unsettling aura, there are those moments we find ourselves mesmerized by the flowing red orb: a bright, eye-catching diversion from the urban upheaval of downtown Paris. Floating nearby like a silent conscience, the faceless observer makes us stop and consider the action "witnessed" -- a reminder that behind the city windows hums the detritus of daily life. Initially, instead of a benign, neutral companion, the balloon represents a concerned friend, supportive and reliable.
Suzanne (an astonishing Juliette Binoche) is a busy actress and single mom. Overwhelmed by her job, her household and thorny tenant issues, she hires Song, a Taiwanese film student (Song Fang), as a nanny for 7-year-old Simon (a sweetly endearing Simon Iteanu). As Simon leads Song to his favorite places -- cafes, shops, pinball arcades -- Song films their adventures and, in time, lets Simon film her as well. Together, the two create a cocoon of sorts to escape the chaos beyond their control.
Recording the details of Simon's everyday life pointedly accentuates precisely what mom is missing. A successful voice-over artist for a puppet theater company, dealing with two ex-lovers and a child from each, Suzanne appears overburdened and maternally unavailable. But despite his mother's commitments, Simon experiences a wondrous childhood, either alone with a balloon nearby, or with Song. As they expose each other to their respective cultures, they grow closer; and by example, Song shows Suzanne the challenges and rewards of motherhood. The scenes inside the cluttered but well-appointed loft bring into sharp focus the chasm between pampering and parenting.
With the calm and ever-accommodating Song by his side, Simon feels comfortable enough to reminisce, sharing (in flashback) tales of happier times with his now faraway half-sister Louise.
Barely aware of the bond between her son and his new caregiver, Suzanne misses out on both the universal and the unexpected. In the meandering film's more poignant and reflective moments, Suzanne recognizes the simplicity of their lives and the stresses of her own, and acknowledges how this contrast might affect her child.
Divorced, distracted and, most consistently, distant, the occasionally disheveled Suzanne struggles for balance and appears stymied in her efforts to show her love beyond an occasional hug or kiss.
Almost every scene is accompanied by piano music, which often substitutes for human interaction. Evocative and emotional, the score alternates between somber and playful.
As the actors were presented a back story for their characters and a script for the plot, but no actual lines, the minimal conversation is nearly entirely improvised. Given these constraints, the performances are extraordinary.
Powerful in its cross-cultural mélange of commonality, "The Flight of the Red Balloon" is notable for its disquieting ordinariness. Compared to the original, lilting (and much shorter) film, this modern-day peek at a moody French mom presents a more cynical take: the red balloon looking down on those who cannot manage the pressures, offering a slightly judgmental, and somewhat harsh, view from the top.