The Red Balloon
Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Once upon a time—well, last year—I watched Albert Lamorisse’s short film, Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon). Shortly after, I learned that he died in a helicopter accident on June 2, 1970—nearly 40 years ago to date—while filming the documentary, Le Vent des amoureux (The Lovers' Wind) in Iran. This anniversary seems a wise time to look back on his most famous, classic short film that still lingers in the hearts of critics, laymen, and children alike. The Red Balloon won Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (1956), and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (1957)—the only short film to win an Oscar outside of the short film categories. Since then, The Red Balloon has reached an iconic status, with profuse nods: Hsiao—hsien Hou’s film, Flight of the Red Balloon; Sandra McCracken’s album, Red Balloon; an unofficial Grizzly Bear video brilliantly syncing footage from the short film with the song, “Two Weeks”; even a scene from Up—a lonely man in his house, carried away by a bouquet of multicolored balloons.
In the 1970’s, thousands of 16 mm copies were distributed to schools across the United States. Kids swung their short legs on chairs in cafeterias and gymnasiums, all eyes glued to the film whirring through a projector onto a pull—down white screen. I, on the other hand, sat on my couch with the remastered Janus Films DVD, completely enchanted with the timeless, whimsical story, no matter my 34 years of age.
In a muted gray-blue palette, a lonesome Parisian boy puts down his brown satchel to rescue a vivid red balloon tangled at the top of a lamppost. No other city dweller seems very impressed with the balloon—such a trivial object in their busy lives—but the boy sees it with faithful eyes: beautifully round and crimson and unnaturally bestowed with personality. The boy befriends the balloon, igniting a steadfast relationship; with almost no dialogue and a melodic, music box—like score by Maurice Le Roux, their silent conversations become audible. Immediately, the two become inseparable in their adventures on the cobblestone streets of the 1950’s Ménilmontant district. The little boy wags his finger at the balloon, demanding obedience, but the playful balloon swoops out of the boy’s reach, or hides around a corner, causing the boy to look about in alarm.
There is deep, sacrificial love in this film: the little boy willingly becomes an outcast for the sake of the red balloon. He forgoes a streetcar when the balloon is not allowed to ride along. When the balloon stirs up a gleeful commotion at school, the boy is placed in solitary confinement. And when the balloon follows the boy and his grandmother into church, causing another disruption, the boy joins the balloon in its forced exile. A group of young thugs misunderstand the balloon in simpleton greediness; they corner it and the boy on a hill akin to Calvary. Despite the little boy’s valiant fight, tragedy strikes.
Lamorisse accomplished his masterpiece of short filmmaking with almost a documentary vibe: inconspicuous direction, natural light, and his own children — Pascal is the little boy, Sabine the girl, with a similar, lifelike blue balloon. Edmond Séchan’s elegant cinematography is nothing less than stunning, considering that digital effects weren’t available to filmmakers in the 1950’s. Lamorisse had an eye for fantastical realism: he used very thin threads to create such images as a string of primary-colored balloons racing across a pastel sky and the rhythm of European city life.
Within a short time frame—34 minutes—and with barely any discourse, the viewer knows the entire allegorical story, one that is imprinted on every soul: friendship, love, comedy, sacrifice, tragedy, and redemption. In our manic, fast-paced society where the supposed meaning of life is dictated through words and speech literally everywhere we look or listen, it is telling for a straightforward film to quietly portray beauty and truth. With an absence of verbal interchanges, the viewer is forced to create the back-story, turning us all into creators. The Red Balloon is timeless, visual poetry. No answers are given to the mysterious, otherworldly ending, but a hopeful declaration resonates with humanity: we can rise above that which seeks to destroy us. We can overcome.