Sunday, February 17, 2013

Following the Red Balloon

Unintentionally color-themed, I'm following up my post on The Yellow Handkerchief with this post on the classic French film The Red Balloon. Arguably a children's movie, The Red Balloon is a 1956 film featuring the director's son Pascal Lamorisse in the lead as a young boy (around age 6) who encounters a red balloon on his way to school one day. He happily scurries off to the school with the balloon in tow, finding out soon afterwards that this is no ordinary balloon. The mischievous balloon has a mind of its own, so to speak, and definitely moves of its own accord. It becomes a constant companion to the young boy, following him about the streets of Paris on everyday adventures. Later, the two try to escape from the boy's mean classmates/peers who are clearly overwrought with envy about the balloon.

Besides that it is considered an iconic piece of work, I had absolutely no idea what this film was about before I watched it. Add that to the stereotype of French films being depressing, I was delightfully surprised to find this movie sweet and whimsical. There was a moment toward the end I was afraid this wouldn't be so, but everything righted itself onto a uplifting course (pun intended). However, I'm not sure how much children really delight in this short movie, especially given that modern audiences of youngsters are used to fast-paced, brightly colored movies that are usually animated and often peopled with outrageous characters.

The Red Balloon is almost entirely wordless, with only a few lines of dialogue given from the boy to the balloon, generally an admonishment to stay put. It is not, however, an entirely silent film. There is of course the requisite soundtrack but there are also numerous other sound effects heard like a doorbell ringing, cars whirring by, and quite frequently the sound of pounding feet hitting the pavement. These all serve to add to the film's ambiance and heighten the comedy or drama of any particular scene.

But mostly the film's story and atmosphere are captured with the cinematography. Of course, we see a lot of the boy in his gray outfits (and adorable school book bag that looks like a miniature briefcase in my mind, making him seem so grown up) and the balloon, which is vividly red and quite large. Throughout the film, there the cityscape of Paris, with its gray buildings, narrow alleyways, numerous stone steps, balconied apartment buildings, and blue street signs. It certainly carries one right into the city - not the tourist's city, with the Eiffel Tower glimpsed only once in the very far distance and no other major monuments featured, but the city of everyday life, with the boy stepping into a boulangerie and passing by outdoor fruit and vegetable stands. Most people on the streets are minding their own business, worried about their own concerns and hardly noticing the boy and his balloon. The cityscape scenery is a reminder that parts of Paris can be quite gray, which serves as a fitting backdrop for the brightly colored balloons that enter the scene in this film.

With hardly any words and a rather bizarre plot line, The Red Balloon allows for a myriad of interpretations of its appealing visuals. The original New York Times review said of it, "It is a thoroughly simple story of something incredible that could not occur except in the bright imagination of an artist such as Albert Lamorisse, the young Frenchman who made the memorable short 'White Mane' and who wrote, produced and directed this. Yet with the sensitive cooperation of his own beguiling son and with the gray-blue atmosphere of an old Paris quarter as the background for the shiny balloon, he has got here a tender, humorous drama of the ingenuousness of a child and, indeed, a poignant symbolization of dreams and the cruelty of those who puncture them." A more recent look by The New York Times of this movie and White Mane acknowledged, "The stories are simple, fablelike; the heroes are boys; the subject in each case is the purity and power of a child’s imagination; and the tone of both films is that of open-mouthed wonder. Yet these movies are also shot through with a very adult melancholy, an awareness that life tends not to measure up to the glorious pictures in our minds." Slant Magazine has a slightly different view, pointing out that, "The honeymoon is short-lived, but Lamorisse suggests that kids are always keenly attuned to the objects of the world around them: After the boy loses his red friend, a montage of balloons across the city shows them flying to his side and, in the final shot, launching him into the sky. For Lamorisse, then, the pleasures of childhood are as fleeting as they are ecstatic." Thus, a key debate to this film could be whether children are unaware of the bitter ironies of life or whether they are just more resilient than adults in getting back up after life delivers them a blow.

Meanwhile, Brian Gibson of Vue Weekly eschews the idea of capturing childhood innocence being the only goal of this movie or its counterpart White Mane, explaining, "These are post-war stories of innocence threatened—by arrogant, selfish gangs bent on proving their superiority. ... [T]his seems a post-Occupation France happy to forget the blood and death of Hitler’s war a decade earlier. But soon people’s occasional, playful efforts to grab the floating, carefree balloon become grasping and destructive. In a gorgeous sequence, light streaming down alleys as children’s shoes clack and clatter on the cobblestones, the red globe bouncing between the walls, Pascal is hunted down for his floating pet. The film’s ballooning sense of hope and freedom is deflated by a fierce, squabbling mass. Then, fortunately, Lamorisse’s film floats off, with the breeze of magic-realism, into a feeling of escape and peace, The Red Balloon taking hold of Pascal, lifting him out of this rigid, petty, earthbound life." Given the film's date, it is not absurd to read it as, at least in part, a reaction to the horrible war that the film's director undoubtedly lived through - though his son in the starring role obviously did not. Battered but cautiously optimistic and healing is probably a fitting description of Europe a decade after the horrors of World War II and Hitler's cruelties, and the film's young lead follows a similar path when his happiness is shattered by the balloon's bursting but is soon replaced with unimaginable joy when the other balloons of Paris come to his rescue. This final scene of vindication could be seen as symbolic of the dream of Europe ascending to even greater heights than before the war. (Decades later, this is arguably the goal of the European Union.)

After its musings on childhood purity versus adult melancholy, the 2007 New York Times article goes on to note, "When the film is over, you realize that although you’ve been entirely enveloped in little Pascal’s fantasy world, you’ve learned next to nothing about the boy himself. His parents are not in evidence. He lives with a stout, black-clad, rather fearsome-looking old woman who may or may not be his grandmother. We’re given no idea whether he’s a good, bad or indifferent student, or who his friends are. The intensity of his attachment to the balloon suggests that he’s a lonely, dreamy child, living in his own head, but we can’t be sure; the movie gives us nothing solid to go on." It is true that this movie is not a character-driven one like I usually enjoy, or at least it is not so in the traditional understanding of that terminology. Still, the young boy has a somewhat universal characterization about him - he is in some ways the epitome of the underdog that we can all sympathize with and root for through his (albeit brief) journey.

At any rate, this is not your standard classic Hollywood fare! Being so very different than all those rather formulaic 1950s movie gives this film the feeling of being a more modern movie that just happens to be set in the past. The special effects are particularly surprising given the film's date. If you haven't seen this short film yet, I suggest you do. It will delight you and cause you to think about its deeper meanings and themes for some time.

1 comment:

  1. I've just been watching this on Sky Arts. I loved it as a child (I imagine I'd have been 6-7 when it was first shown. Not sure where I would have seen it, probably on television. I always thought it was made in black and white (which would have robbed it of it's magic as you need to see the red balloon against the grey of the city) or even at the cinema as part of a double feature, which were so popular when I was a child. Just love it more now. It's so original and I can't think of anything which equals it today.