Renowned French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse is best known for his brilliant 1956 film, The Red Balloon, winner of both an Oscar (for screenplay) and the Palme d’Or award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. It is a short, whimsical and adventurous children’s fable about a young Parisian boy who happens upon a large, seemingly lost, red balloon and the playful, friendship, love, and dependency that develops between the two. The Red Balloon, while simple in concept, is a story suffused with the expansive wonder and pure innocence of a child’s imagination.
Less well known but equally as captivating and inspired is Lamorisse’s earlier children’s film White Mane, which actually won the filmmaker his first Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1953. The film is set in Camargue, a remote region in the southwest of France. With its heavy marshes and lush, uncultivated landscape, it is a dichotomous environment, for it is filled with an immense natural beauty that inspires awe and admiration, but renders those who work and inhabit its land with dangerous, isolating hardships that betray the region’s innate splendor.
The central story of White Mane concerns a wild horse and his refusal to be tamed by a group of local ranchers. Amongst a herd of brown and black horses, this beautiful white horse stands out not only for his color, but also for his temper, independence, and complete unwillingness to be reigned in. He is a natural leader and enjoys the freedom of running with the pack, but is also proudly separate and fiercely self-sufficient.
The inability to capture White Mane is both a source of great frustration and maddening confusion for the herders. He is not especially large or strong, but his willful nature is befuddling to these men whose job it is to suppress individuality for the benefit of the larger group. Watching the ranchers’ struggle with this wild horse is a young boy named Folco (Alain Emery), who lives nearby in a tiny, remote fishing village with his grandfather and younger brother. Folco, much like White Mane himself, is resourceful and defiant but, also, quietly confident, gentle and loving.
Folco is transfixed by the beauty, strength, and powerful nature of this wild horse. Even though the ranchers have failed time and again in their pursuit of capturing the horse Folco believes that he has the ability to calm and claim White Mane as his own. The film is an exploration of this journey as the young boy and the untamed horse come to trust, befriend, love, and protect each other.
With minimal narration and a pencil-sketched outline of a plot White Mane is an enigmatic film that relies heavily on difficult and ambiguous imagery to convey its story. The energy, tension, and excitement of the movie develop organically from both the simple narrative and the rugged landscape in which the film was shot. White Mane is as much an exquisite nature documentary as it is a spellbinding fairy-tale. The blending of the natural with the fantastical is truly remarkable and elevates the film from simple child’s play to high art.
Lamorisse’s most celebrated fictional work—he devoted most of his remaining years to documentaries—always lands in the children’s section of the film library. That categorization is both appropriate and misleading, for his films speak not only to children, but also to the young that remains in us all. That may sound like a packaged cliché, but the gentle beauty and unforced wonder of Lamorisse’s work is a rarity that has delighted audiences for more than half a century.
As with most classic children’s stories, whether in literature or on screen, White Mane is a tale that is both enjoyed by children and treasured by adults. Kids will be enchanted by the loyal friendship and deep love that grows between Folco and the wild horse. And adults will cherish the fact that there is more than canned truisms and simple nostalgia in this tale of innocence, independence, and danger.
White Mane is clearly informed by an adult’s perspective and there is a wistful sadness, cynicism, and longing that persists throughout the story. The unique strength and talent of Lamorisse as an artist is in the blending of his adult’s eye with the simple, tender, and expansive nature of a child’s imagination. It is a marriage that Lamorisse pulls off with a seamless ease and engrossing style.
Lamorisse’s reputation as a great filmmaker was first established with White Mane and then cemented by the success of The Red Balloon. What is often overlooked in all of this cinematic praise is the recognition of Lamorisse as a masterful and subtle poet. For his movies are less films than deceptively simple and deeply ruminative poems translated into the visual language of cinema. His ability to restrain or limit his telling of the narrative is invaluable for it allows the audience to truly be an engaged observer, which opens us up to the experience of the story.
Audiences young and old will certainly welcome the re-mastered release of White Mane on DVD. Though it is curious and rather disappointing that Criterion chose not to include any extras alongside the updated digital print. The technical aspects of the DVD release are solid and the digital transfer results in a sharper, crisper black and white picture. Sound quality is good throughout and there is an optional English dub for those averse to reading subtitles (as few as they may be in this short, minimalist film).
Ostensibly, Criterion’s creation of a Children’s Series (with titles priced much lower than many films in their wider catalog) informed their decision to not splurge on a host of DVD extras. An odd choice considering the Criterion Collection’s reputation for exacting and obsessive attention to the technical, academic, and cinematic minutiae of the films they release under their banner. While certain fans may lament the dearth of supplements with this DVD release it is hardly a reason for missing out on this brilliant, movingly bittersweet, and truly gorgeous film.