The Red Balloon (1956) *French language film, but with very little dialogue

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Foreign | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Intense disappointment and sadness await you.

In the book 1000 Films to Change Your Life, critic Malena Janson describes her most memorable and intense emotional responses to films she saw as a child. She briefly mentions the fearful experience of Watership Down and the happiness that resulted from Hugo and Josefin, but she spends the most amount of time describing the overwhelming sadness of The Red Balloon. All three exude raw emotional responses, to be sure, and Janson aptly states that they successfully did so by boldly taking the camera where so few have. That is, they use the point of view of a child.

You’ve likely seen this film before, but have since forgotten, as it’s a standard in primary schools. And it’s no wonder why, as it has a universal appeal for both adults and kids. Though it barely breaches the half-hour mark, has little dialogue, and a very simple plot, Balloon floats universal visual/aural devices for its young viewers while stringing a few social implications along for the adults.

The arthouse film opens with a RedBalloon2schoolboy overlooking the foggy city streets. He curiously wanders the cobblestone passages and scales a light pole to retrieve a magical and gigantic red balloon. But we get the sense that it’s not the boy that discovers the balloon, but perhaps the balloon that chooses the boy.  The orb is certainly loyal, as it gleefully goes with him to school and the bakery – both of them seeking shelter under the umbrellas of passersby – and follows him at home and as he rides the bus, despite being tossed out of both. The balloon is mischievous as well, taunting envious children, harassing a teacher, and sniffing out a blue balloon as if it were a dog sensing the opposite sex.

The fire engine red orb is clearly a deliberate contrast to the city and its denizens, both of which are draped in gray nearly exclusively. Not only is it bright in color, but the film also implies that it’s likely the brightest part of the boy’s life. With his grandmother, the boy lives in a shabby, post-war, working class quarter of Paris. We hear yelling boys and rushing traffic in the busy areas, but while the balloon and boy travel alone we enjoy melodious and gay tones. And though the boy’s slingshot-carrying cohorts eventually burst the boy’s bubble (sorry to ruin it), the balloons throughout France rush to his rescue and take him high above the city to another, much brighter, world (maybe the DreamWorks logo?).

Pascal Lamorisse plays the boy, and his father, Albert Lamorisse, created it. Lamorisse was a photographer-turned short film director noted for fantasy children’s films and for creating the board game “Risk.” Soon after Balloon he turned to mediocre feature films and then documentaries before a helicopter crash during an Iranian shoot ended his life. Before Balloon Lamorisse created The White Mane (1953), another Janus Films release that is attached to the only DVD version I could locate. White Mane is a boy-and-his-horse movie, partially written by critic James Agee, and is bleaker than Balloon, but likewise excellent. Both of them earned grand prizes at Cannes Film Festival, but Balloon also took home a best original screenplay Oscar. To this day, it is the only short film to win an Oscar outside its own category.

Certainly Balloon is a much-loved classic, but is the story – a magical balloon following a young working class boy in Paris – a reflection of the real world or just mere fantasy? Adults may ponder for a minute before landing on the latter, but if you ask a child you may get a different answer.

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