“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).            

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