[19 June 2008]
Compared to the structural excesses of modern Hollywood films, The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge) feels truly overwhelming because of its visual and narrative minimalism. And then again, perhaps such simplicity is what grants this unforgettable French film its awesome cinematic power.
In this regard, it is really surprising how, in spite of its short running time of less than 35 minutes, The Red Balloon accomplishes the satisfactory telling of an emotional story of friendship, savagery, and salvation. Furthermore, writer and director Albert Lamorisse infused his imaginative film with a true sense of wonder and magic. If you think about it, considering that Lamorisse dedicated most of his career to the making of documentaries, the success of The Red Balloon was a big accomplishment.
In The Red Balloon, Pascal, the five-year-old son of Lamorisse, plays a young Parisian boy who, on his way to school encounters. tied to a lamp post, a unique and mysterious new friend: the titular red balloon. Pascal takes the balloon with him and they quickly develop a powerful bond and become best friends. Acting on an almost supernatural manner, Pascal is able to interact with the balloon, and in a way, they even appear to communicate with each other. As the film showcases multiple times, they play and tease each other as kids often do.
However, Lamorisse showcases the uncanny behavior of the balloon in a very subtle way. That is, Lamorisse avoids committing himself and the viewer to a supernatural explanation. Instead, we are left to wonder if the balloon is indeed alive or if the wind is just tricking our perception by moving the balloon in a unique and convenient way. As a consequence, the considerable anthropomorphism granted to the balloon is in great part due to our own expectations and sense of imagination, which are being cleverly manipulated by the visual and narrative structure of The Red Balloon.
In this regard it is really surprising the emotional depth that we associate with the balloon. And truth be told, one is left to wonder if The Red Balloon served as an inspiration to Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000), in the way it presented an unanimated soccer ball as a genuine character, “Wilson”, in the film. Furthermore, few would disagree that the red balloon appears to show superior histrionic abilities than many actors currently working in Hollywood. At the very least, this floating helium balloon could very well teach a thing or two to Hayden Christensen.
In any event, The Red Balloon is a moving story about unconditional friendship and love. However, in spite of his immense happiness, Pascal soon discovers that nearly everybody appears to be determined to separate him from his beloved friend. Just consider: the ticket collector does not allow Pascal to board the bus with the balloon, the church and school officials denigrate the bond between Pascal and the balloon, and even his grandmother puts the balloon out the window. Clearly, for some untold reason, all figures of authority oppose the relationship between Pascal and his balloon.
But perhaps more striking is the violent reaction seen in other kids of Pascal’s age, who are bent on destroying the balloon by any means possible. As shown through Lamorisse’s camera lens, these youngsters present an obsessive, irrational, and frantic desire to tear down the balloon. Thus, the final part of The Red Balloon turns into a frenetic and suspenseful chase across the narrow alleys of the picturesque Menilmontant.
Without a doubt, The Red Balloon portrays a strong religious subtext. Indeed, the balloon is presented as a martyr who performs miracles, is tortured and stoned by an irrational mob, and its ultimate sacrifice grants a kind of spiritual salvation to Pascal. Furthermore, the fact that the balloon is originally found tied to a lamp post suggests that it may be an allegory to Christ crucified on the cross. As such, The Red Balloon metaphorically insinuates that, even after two millennia of wars and social turmoil, the sins and immorality of mankind continue to haunt our world.
Similarly, one could also argue that Lamorisse used The Red Balloon as a means to provide social criticism to the complex social and political problems that plagued France during the postwar years. Indeed, let us recall that the Fourth Republic governed France between 1946 and 1958, and even though this period was characterized by huge economic growth, it is also remembered because of the political instability of the country due controversial colonial policies.
During that chaotic period of time, a considerable number of French citizens severely criticized the government’s use of armed forces to maintain the control over territorial colonies such as Algiers and Indochina. Furthermore, the memories of the Nazi occupation of Paris were painfully fresh for many. Therefore, The Red Balloon obviously considers the brutal nature of the human condition. Indeed, this film suggests that irrational violence and aggression are innate to mankind. And in a sense, it questions the way modern society appears to condone and reinforce feelings of xenophobia, alienation, discrimination, and antagonism.
At the time of its original release, The Red Balloon proved to be quite successful among audiences and critics. Indeed, most people who have watched this film remember it quite vividly and with fond memories. The Red Balloon was awarded the 1957 Academy Award for Best Screenplay and the 1958 Golden Palm at the International Cannes Festival.
Unfortunately, in recent years The Red Balloon has not received all the critical and academic attention it deserves – the film was unavailable on home video for many years. Thankfully, Janus Films has released The Red Balloon on DVD. And even though it is not part of their acclaimed and beloved Criterion Collection, it is offered with pristine video and audio quality. While it is regrettable that this DVD presentation does not offer any significant extra features, it remains an essential purchase for all film fans.
The Red Balloon has a short running time and minimal dialogue. The story is quite simple and straightforward, without the structural complexities of modern Hollywood productions. But then again, The Red Balloon is one of the most powerful movies ever made. And even though The Red Balloon is often categorized as a film for children, it is beloved by viewers of all ages. Therefore, as watching movies goes, The Red Balloon shows that emotional depth and sense of imagination go a long way.