“The Red Balloon” - Albert Lamorisse (1956)

The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge, 1956) is a short fantasy drama that was an immediate hit with critics and the public and has long attracted a passionate following of both children and adults.  Although it had a running time of only 34 minutes, the film won a Palme d'Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, and a U.S. Oscar in 1956 for Best Original Screenplay (even beating out Fellini’s masterpiece, La Strada, which was a nominee in that category).  Although the film is in French, it has such sparse dialogue that one can watch the film without any subtitles, and it is thus an example of pure visual expression.  Indeed, critic Michael Koresky said of it [1]:
“The Red Balloon is one of the all-time greatest examples of pure cinema.”
The Red Balloon was written, produced, and directed by the multi-talented Albert Lamorisse, who seemed to have a lifetime fascination with filming aerial subjects.  He invented a helicopter-mounted steady-camera system called “helivision”, but his career was tragically cut short when he died in a helicopter crash  in Iran in 1970 during the filming of his documentary The Lovers' Wind (Le Vent des Amoureux, 1978) [2].  On the side, by the way, Lamorisse in 1957 also invented the long-popular and absorbing strategy board game, Risk, which involves the options of multi-player alliances in the context of world conflicts. 

In some ways the story of The Red Balloon is quite simple and is about a young boy’s friendship with a helium-filled balloon that he encounters.  What kind of friendship could that amount to?, you might ask.  Well, it turns out that its simplicity evokes universality, and that is what makes this purely visual expression of elemental emotions fascinating.

The film’s story progresses through four stages of social evolution.

1.  Pascal Befriends a Red Balloon
At the outset we see a young boy of about six years of age, Pascal (played by Albert Lamorisse’s own son, Pascal Lamorisse), walking through a working-class district of Paris on his way to school.  On the way, he looks up and sees a big red helium filled balloon tied to a balcony railing.  So he climbs up and fetches the balloon and takes it with him.  When he discovers that he can’t take the balloon aboard the bus he normally takes to school, he decides to run all the way on foot, holding tightly onto the balloon string, in a 30-second shot.

After classes are over, it is raining, and as Pascal walks home, he shelters the balloon, not himself, from the rain by holding it under the umbrellas of other pedestrians he encounters walking in his direction.  When he gets home to his upstairs apartment, he takes the balloon inside, but his mother promptly shoos the balloon out the window.  However, the floating balloon lingers outside the apartment window, and when his mother isn’t looking, Pascal opens the window and takes the balloon back inside.

2.  A Developing Relationship
In this section we see the evolution of a developing friendship.  It is now the next morning, and Pascal has to go to school again.  The balloon naughtily eludes Pascal’s grasp of the string, but it nevertheless follows Pascal, just out of his reach, as he walks along toward the school.  Along the way, the balloon shows more naughtiness by sometimes playing hide-and-go-seek with the boy by hiding in open doorways.  When they get to the bus stop, Pascal this time instructs the balloon to follow the bus, and the balloon dutifully follows the bus all the way.

At the school, the balloon’s presence and shenanigans cause an uproar, and the stern school principal punishes Pascal by locking him in his office.  But the balloon, still eluding anyone’s attempts to grab hold of its string, hangs around.  While waiting for Pascal to be freed, the balloon spends some time playfully harassing the principal and staying just out of reach.  When classes are finished and Pascal is let out, the balloon joins Pascal again on the walk home.

On the way home, Pascal and the balloon walk through a street market, and they both get momentarily distracted by artificial images that seem respectively real to their naive gazes.  Pascal is distracted by a life-sized portrait of a young girl his age that is for sale.  The balloon seems to be similarly distracted by its own image in a mirror that is for sale.  By now, even though the balloon has no “facial” features whatsoever, the viewer probably shares Pascal’s conviction that the balloon is a person.

Later on the way home, Pascal and his red balloon encounter a young girl (played by Albert Lamorisse’s young daughter, Sabine) walking with a blue helium-filled balloon.  The two balloons seem to be immediately attracted to each other, and Pascal struggles to separate them, before he finally grabs hold of his red balloon’s string and can proceed on his way.

3.  Bullies
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Pascal and his balloon come to the attention of older boys in the neighborhood, who want to take control of his balloon.  This introduces a more complex and interesting character to the narrative than the feast of innocence that has been shown up to this point.  Pascal’s innocent openheartedness toward the balloon has seemed intuitive and natural to us, but when we think about it, the behavior of these older boys is natural, too.  There is a destructive and bullying instinct in young boys which is just as natural (and which must be tamed by loving parental guidance). 

At first the bullies surround Pascal in an effort to steal his balloon, but Pascal and his balloon are clever enough to escape on this occasion.  Then on Sunday Pascal and his mother attend church without the balloon.  But the balloon can’t keep from following them inside, which causes a gendarme to angrily throw them all out of the service. 

Afterwards and out on the street again, Pascal tells his by now more obedient red balloon to wait outside a pastry shop while he goes in and buys a sweet.  While Pascal is busy inside the shop, some of the bullies happen to pass by and seize the red balloon, which they then take to a vacant lot and start pelting with stones.  Pascal does manage to rescue the balloon and run away, but he is chased by an ever-growing gang of older boys.  After a hectic 3-minute chase scene through Parisian alleys, the older boys recapture the red balloon and resume pelting it with stones.

Eventually the slung stones damage the red balloon, and it starts deflating and slowly descending to the ground.  This is shown in a tragic 90-second “death” shot, which culminates with a boy stomping on the partially deflated balloon and “killing” it.  

These older boys do not seem to be inherently evil; they’re just enjoying having the fun of, what is to them, harmlessly wrecking something that they presumably see as just a wacky inanimate object.  It’s what a boy might do when he walks down the sidewalk on an icy winter day and coming upon a puddle that is frozen over, he stomps on the layer of ice, breaking it up into small pieces.  As Bertrand Russell remarked, both construction and destruction satisfy the will to power, but destruction is easier [3].  Of course Pascal didn’t see the balloon as a just a wacky inanimate object.  He (and we viewers along with him) now saw the red balloon as a person.

4.  Resurrection
With Pascal now left alone and glumly staring at the torn remains of the deflated balloon, our drama of the red balloon seems to have come to an end.  But not quite.  Now something magical starts happening.  Helium-filled balloons from all over Paris start breaking away from their owners and ascending up into the sky.  Coming from all different directions, these balloons head over to where Pascal is sitting and descend to where he can reach their strings.  Pascal joyfully ties the strings together and holds on as the collection of balloons lift him off the ground and up into the sky.  The final shot of the film shows Pascal flying higher over the Parisian cityscape and  disappearing off into the sky.


Certainly the ending is mystical and mesmerizing, but what does it all mean?  Some critics have seen the death of the red balloon and the final scene of heavenly escape as a child-oriented metaphorical representation of the crucifixion and holy resurrection of Jesus Christ [4].  I wouldn’t take it quite that literally, and I am more in line with Brian Selznick’s general assessment [5]:
 “I believe Lamorisse’s final image of transcendence, which could easily be read as religious or more generally spiritual, is the real point of the story, and it best evokes the film’s desire for magic. We want to believe that we can rise above the difficulties of our lives in the same way Pascal does in the end, thanks to the love he shared. Love that strong is meaningful to everyone, children as well as adults, and Lamorisse shows how it ties us to the larger world around us and vice versa.”
Overall, I would add to this by saying that from my own perspective The Red Balloon is an extraordinarily lyrical evocation of the innocent joie de vivre that we are all born with but which the ensuing vicissitudes and tribulations of life tend to make us forget and overlook.  When we are about Pascal’s age, this innocent openness to the world’s magical wonders can be the dominant perspective.  But as we get older, like the older boys in this story, we fall prey to the temptations of willful ascendancy.  Nevertheless, we can all still relate to Pascal’s experiences shown here in this film, as if their presentation revives in us long-forgotten memories of our earliest senses of wonder at the world’s magic.

The  deceptively artful production of this film, which is graced by the smooth cinematography of Edmond Séchan and the lyrical music of Maurice Le Roux, makes all this magic come to life.  And in fact over a second watching of the film, I had to wonder how Lamorisse and his production team managed more than sixty years ago to stage and shoot many of the scenes involving such subtle interactions with the balloon.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Michael Koresky, "The Red Balloon", The Criterion Collection (29 April 2008).   
  2. Liam Callanan, “The Final Flight of Albert Lamorisse”, Slate, (2 July 2018).   
  3. Philip Kennicott, “'Red Balloon' and 'White Mane': Childhood Colored by Adult Cynicism”, Washington Post, (23 November 2007).   
  4. Brian Selznick, “The Red Balloon: Written on the Wind”, The Criterion Collection, (20 November 2008).   
  5. Maria Popova, “Bertrand Russell on Human Nature, Construction vs. Destruction, and Science as a Key to Democracy”, brainpickings, (21 February 2013).            

Albert Lamorisse

Films of Albert Lamorisse:

Edward Sedgwick

Films of Edward Sedgwick:

“The Cameraman” - Buster Keaton and Edward Sedgwick (1928)

The Cameraman (1928) was the last of Buster Keaton’s great silent-film features, which had earlier included Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).  This was also the first film he made with MGM Studios, after having made most of his earlier classics with his own hand-crafted production company.  The move to MGM may have seemed like a good option at the time, but Keaton later very much regretted it, since it led to a loss of his autonomy and restrictions on his creative options.  MGM insisted on having a finalized script prior to shooting and filming according to a tight shooting schedule, something that didn’t mesh with Keaton’s usual improvisational style.  So for The Cameraman, the studio assigned 22 writers to work on the script to ensure it would meet their professional standards [1].  However, for this first film for MGM, at least, Keaton managed to convince producer Irving Thalberg to let him scrap the studio’s script and let him do things his way.  The result was a hit at the box office and with the critics, but the subsequent increasing MGM restrictions on Keaton’s creativity, along with the coming of the sound-era in filmmaking, led to a relentless decline to Keaton’s career.

The story of The Cameraman concerns a would-be newsreel photographer and his efforts to break in to this exciting professional arena.  In those days newsreels, often with live, on-the-spot footage, were shown prior to the mean features at movie theaters.  Since these were in the days prior to television and electronic media, the newsreels were the only visual samplings the public had of newsworthy events taking place around the world, and they were immensely popular. So there was a premium placed on those intrepid newsreel photographers who could rush to a newsworthy, sometimes dangerous, event and capture what was happening on film.  Our film’s protagonist wants to engage in this heroic pursuit.
 
Our protagonist, of course, is played by Buster Keaton, who always portrays an ordinary, innocent, and naive young man who despite, his ill preparation and lack of resources, dauntlessly faces seemingly overwhelming challenges.  And as I have previously mentioned in earlier reviews of Keaton’s films, his narratives usually progress through three stages of intensity concerning the challenges to be faced:
  • the Quaint (the hopelessly naive and shy protagonist trying to play by the conservative  rules he has been brought up on),
     
  • the Slapstick (the protagonist encountering unexpected events and obstacles that result in one acrobatic pratfall after another), and
     
  • the Maelstrom (the protagonist(s) engulfed in a blizzard of existential threats arising from an inscrutable environment).
In The Cameraman, however, these phases are not so clearly marked, and, moreover, the maelstrom is not the culminating event of the story.  In addition, many of the slapstick occasions in this story seem to be just random occurrences that are not very closely connected to an overriding narrative.  Nevertheless, the film does manage to carry much of the characteristic Keatonesque charm.

The Cameraman’s story passes through four stages.

1.  The Tintype Photographer (the Quaint)
At first we see Buster Keaton (playing “Buster”) working on the street soliciting passers-by to have their pictures taken with his tintype camera.  Tintype photography was an early image print process that could produce pictures in a couple of minutes, so Buster could hand over his taken pictures immediately to his customers.  His work, however, is interrupted by a tickertape parade that attracts a big crowd.  Among the onlookers is a naturally beautiful young woman, Sally (played by Marceline Day), on whom Buster develops an instant crush.  Buster also sees that the tickertape parade is being filmed by a newsreel photographer, and he wonders if that’s something he could do.

So Buster goes to the offices of MGM Newsreels looking for a job, and he is surprised to see that working there as a receptionist is Sally, towards whom the awkward and virtually speechless Buster can only make worshipful glances.  Buster’s primitive tintype camera is rudely dismissed by the MGM boss and a staff cameraman Harry (Harold Goodwin), who also has his eyes on Sally, and Buster is shown the door.  Before leaving, though, Sally sympathetically tells him that he needs to have his own motion-picture camera and take some interesting footage with it in order to get such a job.  So Buster uses all of his money to buy an old hand-cranked film camera at a pawnshop, and then he goes off looking for interesting things to film.

2.  The Slapstick Scenes
Now the film passes into a somewhat disconnected sequence of slapstick scenes.  Out on the city streets looking for interesting things to shoot, Buster has a slapstick encounter with a cop (Harry Gribbon) walking his beat.  These semi-hostile encounters will reappear throughout the rest of the film.  Then, not knowing that the New York Yankees baseball team is on the road, he visits an empty Yankee Stadium looking for something to shoot.  There follows a slapstick pantomime sequence of Buster imitating baseball players in action.  Although this scene has nothing to do with the rest of the story, it is amusing to see how closely Keaton’s 90-year-old pantomiming matches the gestures of today’s baseball players.

When Buster returns to MGM Newsreels to show the footage of supposedly interesting urban activity he has collected, he is crushed to see that his incompetence with his hand-cranked camera led to everything being double-exposed, and he is scornfully laughed out of the studio screening room.  Before he departs, though, he manages to secure a date to take Sally for a walk the next Sunday, the preparation for which involves further slapstick, including a continuous multi-floor tracking shot showing Buster running up and down stairs.

On the date, after a harrowing bus ride, they wind up going to the municipal indoor swimming pool, where more shenanigans take place.  Perhaps the most famous of these shows Buster and a fat man cramped inside a phone-booth-sized changing stall, where he and the man struggle to change into their swimming suits.  All of this must have been carefully planned, because this is presented in extended takes, the longest of which lasts 2:40.  There are also frantic sequences showing Buster and Sally in the water after Buster had embarrassedly lost his swimsuit.

When they are ready to go home, Harry shows up uninvited and offers Sally a ride home in his fancy car.  Harry dismissively tells Buster to go sit back in the rumble seat, and Buster winds up getting soaked to his skin when a thunderstorm arises during their ride home.

3.  The Tong War Maelstrom
Later the still-sympathetic Sally gets word that in Chinatown there is an imminent Tong (Chinese gangsters) war, and she quietly passes the information about this certain-to-be-newsworthy event on to Buster.  Buster immediately rushes off towards Chinatown, but in his haste he knocks over a sidewalk organ grinder, the crushing fall apparently killing the organ grinder’s his little dancing monkey.  However, after the organ grinder departs with some compensatory coins from Buster, the monkey revives and permanently attaches itself to Buster. 

Buster now arrives in Chinatown, and he, with the clever assistance from his new monkey pal, starts filming the incredibly violent and chaotic Tong war that has erupted.  He is now in the middle of a maelstrom.  This tumultuous battle goes on for seven minutes of screen time, and Buster is lucky to survive.  Afterwards, he triumphantly returns to MGM to show his precious footage, but he is shocked when he opens his camera to find no film in it.  Seemingly having ruined his last change with Sally, he apologizes to her and goes home.

4.  Finally, Some Valuable Footage

The next day Buster, still with his monkey, goes to film a yacht club regatta.  When he sets up his camera, Buster discovers that his monkey had the previous day mischievously removed Buster’s earlier-shot film reel from his camera, suggesting that his Tong-war footage is still available. 

But at this point we see that Harry has taken Sally out in the same waters in his speedboat, and they speed into Buster’s camera’s field of view.  When Harry attempts a daredevil turn in the speedboat, he and Sally are both thrown into the water.  Saving his own skin, Harry safely swims ashore, leaving Sally alone struggling way out in the water.

When Buster sees what has happened, he strips off his coat and plunges into the water to save Sally.  Incredibly, after Buster has abandoned his camera, the monkey comes over and starts cranking the camera to film everything.  Buster manages to rescue the now-unconscious Sally, and once he brings her ashore, he immediately rushes off to a nearby drugstore to get something that will help revive her.  While Buster is momentarily away, Harry shows up just as Sally regains consciousness.  Harry quickly claims wrongful credit for having saved Sally and ushers her away just before Buster can return to her.  Buster has once more lost to Harry.

Buster feels that he has been defeated once and for all.  But we know that his camera has recorded, thanks partly to his ingenious monkey pal, the truth of his heroic deeds, including the Tong war, on film.  You can watch the ending of The Cameraman for yourself to see how these truths are finally revealed to all.


Overall, The Cameraman has two satisfying narrative threads: one of them tracing Buster’s hectic efforts to film newsworthy events so that he can secure a job at the newsreel company and the other thread covering the tentative and gradual relationship between Buster and Sally.  This relationship thread is greatly enhanced by Marceline Day’s sensitive and subtly emotive performance in the role of Sally.  This is all interlaced with an admittedly hodgepodge collection of slapstick scenes, which must have required careful planning and execution to get right.

On the thematic plane, we might inquire whether the cameraman’s occupation in the film stimulates considerations of larger social issues, such as privacy, authenticity, and censorship.  However, although those issues are lurking in the background, they do not come up in any significant way here in this film.  Nevertheless, The Cameraman is an entertaining film that I recommend.
½ 

Notes:
  1. “The Cameraman”, Wikipedia, (21 December 2018).   

Sam Wood

Films of Sam Wood: