by Sachin Gandhi
A balloon floating up in the sky still manages to catch everyone’s attention! Some will express sadness at seeing the balloon floating away, at the thought that there is a child nearby who is crying at seeing their precious balloon fly away. Despite all the technological advancements and flashing gadgets we have in society, a balloon is still an essential part of a child’s life. No birthday party would be complete without the presence of balloons. In fact, balloons complete a birthday party. This love of balloons would have made Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon an easy film to be included in a childhood countdown. However, the film is present on merit in the Wonders in the Dark Childhood Countdown because it is more than just about a balloon. In its short running time of 35 minutes, The Red Balloon encapsulates all of life, including all emotions associated with a child’s growth from an early age to that of a teenager. More importantly, the film’s style, without dialogue, and story make this a timeless work that is also the purest form of cinema. The film is a beautiful blend of documentary, art and commercial cinema. In addition, the template for many contemporary films, including Hollywood animation movies, can be traced all the way back to Lamorisse’s beautifully conceived short film.
The Red Balloon starts off with young Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) finding a balloon tied up to a street lamp. Once he climbs up and gets the balloon, Pascal doesn’t let go and holds the string tightly, just like any child would. He goes everywhere with the balloon even opting to walk all the way to school as his balloon is not allowed on the streetcar. When he returns home, the caretaker is not happy with the balloon’s presence and goes to the balcony and releases it into the air. The balloon being sent into the air would be a child’s worst nightmare; the crushing feeling of seeing their cherished balloon disappearing. As it turns out, the balloon hovers outside the balcony, waiting for Pascal. It doesn’t take long for Pascal to figure out that the balloon can move up and down, follow him around and even obey, much like a trained pet would. This increases Pascal’s attachment with the balloon beyond the initial discovery of a toy. The balloon now becomes Pascal’s trusted companion, his only true friend, one with whom he passes his time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for other boys to be jealous of Pascal’s possession and they try their best to take the balloon away. When their initial efforts fail, they mount an ambush, overpower Pascal and crush the balloon. The death of the balloon sets off a magical element around Paris, as balloons of all colours and sizes free themselves from their owners clutches and gather to mourn the death of the red balloon. Pascal is excited to see all these balloons and grabs as many strings as he can. The balloons then fly off with Pascal, far away into the horizon, likely to a magical place, free of bullies and evil kids.
The film manages to capture all the emotions a person undergoes during childhood. Some kids find it hard to fit in and are left by themselves. It is clear Pascal does not have many friends at school and is on his own. When he finds the red balloon, he finally finds a friend to deal with his loneliness. Just as he is happy to shed his isolation, Pascal comes across another common aspect of growing up and that is the nasty bullies. The bullies pick on him and try to take away his balloon. The bully behaviour is depicted with a fine eye for realism, especially in how the boys mount an ambush, akin to adults looking to attack their target. The Red Balloon is devoid of dialogue and even the few spoken words are not clearly audible and not subtitled. This aspect does not take away from the film but instead makes this a work of vérité cinema. In fact, this short film can be considered to be an early film which shows how documentary and fiction can be beautifully blended together. In addition, the emotions imparted on a lifeless balloon and the ensuing friendship Pascal has with the balloon makes this film a precursor to the modern day Disney/Pixar and other Hollywood Studios animation films where toys, animals and various everyday objects come to life and exhibit human emotions. The cinematography and remarkable colour palette also assist in making The Red Balloon a vital work. Paris is shown in muted colours with grayish shades. Only the red balloon and subsequent balloons near the film’s end are rich in colour and stand out from their dull surroundings. This little piece of visual beauty allows the red balloon to appear magical, almost from another world. The Red Balloon is not just a brilliant children’s film, it is a brilliant piece of cinema! The film is as relevant today as it was when it first came out almost 6 decades ago in 1956. It is rare to find all of life condensed in a film with such a short running time but that is the incredible task that Albert Lamorisse has managed.