A good relationship is often the foundation upon which a film stands or falls and not all friendships are about people. Some focus on the bond between a person (quite often a child) and an animal – from serials like Champion, The Wonder Horse to the Lassie movies, and modern films like Marley & Me. Occasionally friendships have formed beyond the ordinary – take the Steven Spielberg classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, in which a young boy befriends an alien, or Real Steel, which features a boxing robot.
But films which involve a relationship with an inanimate object have not exactly created a niche in the market. The reason for this is that it’s hard to create a personality in something that can’t easily be anthropomorphised. This is something that director, writer and producer Albert Lamorisse managed to create in his 1956 short film, The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge), which tells the brief story of the relationship between a young boy and his large red balloon.
The story is very simple. One morning, on the way to school, Pascal, a young boy of about 7 years old, finds the titular Red Balloon tied to a lamp post. He climbs up a wall to get to the balloon, then carries it on his way to school. Later that day, he takes the balloon home only for his mother to throw it out of the window. But instead of floating up to the sky, the balloon descends and returns to Pascal’s window. He takes the balloon in and (presumably) hides it (we never see the inside of the house). The next morning we discover that this toy is no ordinary balloon. It has a life all of its own. Not only that, but it also seems to have a mischievous streak – playfully pulling away from the boy when he wants to hold the string and interrupting the boy’s school (which results in Pascal being locked up in the headmaster’s office).
There is a brief interlude of balloon friendship when the red balloon meets a blue one being carried by a young girl and, momentarily, it leaves Pascal. The tension of the film is provided towards the end when a group of young kids try to get the balloon off Pascal and attempt to pop it. When the balloon finally bursts, the effect is quite profound. We’ve been so swept up in this strange relationship that the balloon’s ‘death’ is very moving, it feels real.
This anthropomorphism has been criticised by some, notably the great French director François Truffaut, who described the balloon as a ‘counterfeit horse’, because it was not grounded in any reality. He thought that an object or animal should remain true to itself, also criticising Disney films which featured talking animals. His problem here was simply because he did not believe that a balloon would act like it does in the film. It isn’t real. Whilst I usually agree with much of Truffaut’s writings, I don’t agree on his opinions of The Red Balloon. The reason the film works is because of the clash between the reality of the Paris streets as presented, and the fantasy of the balloon.
The cinematography is a contrast of two very different visions. Firstly, we have the drab ordinariness of the Parisian Streets. The people are presented in a very natural, almost documentary style. There’s no attempt at trying to create a cinematic vision of Paris. In fact, this could be any city. We see schools, trams, back alleys and derelict buildings. The paint on the walls is peeling and there seems to be a constant stream of water flowing off the waste ground and into the alleyways. There are no significant landmarks, just the city as seen by its inhabitants. And much of it is as seen by the smallest inhabitants, the children for whom an alleyway is an adventure playground, the twists and turns a well-known maze in which adults seldom travel.
The director isn’t interested in showing anything indoors. We only see the outside and, even when the camera is indoors, it is always looking out. All this is in contrast to the brightness of the balloons – the red, the blue and the rainbow of colours as all the city’s balloons gather together at the end. It has a visual purity which was an obvious inspiration for the Pixar film Up.
The Red Balloon is a short film at only 34 minutes, and it feels even shorter. The reason for this is simple – it is so very entertaining. It was directed, produced and written by Albert Lamorisse, a filmmaker who made a number of award-winning shorts (including the remarkable Crin Blanc (White Mane), and in 1957 he invented the board game Risk. The star of the film is Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son, and the little girl with the blue balloon is played by Pascal’s little sister, Sabine.
Considering the simplicity of the film (or possibly because of it) there have been many different interpretations of what The Red Balloon is actually about. Some have claimed it was a metaphor for the French rising up after the tyranny of World War II, others claimed it was an allegory based on the Christ story.
It can certainly be enjoyed like this, but I think that the reason it’s so successful is because of how good it is. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1957, beating The Bold and the Brave (Robert Lewin), La Strada (Federico Fellini & Tullio Pinelli) and The Ladykillers (William Rose) – quite a remarkable feat for such a short film with very little dialogue. It also won the short film equivalent of The Palm D’or.
The Red Balloon is also the perfect film to introduce young children to World Cinema. It is mostly silent, with only brief bits of dialogue in French, so it’s easy for a child to follow. The subtitles are brief enough not to over-load a young viewer. Ultimately, of course, one of the reasons it works, especially for the young, is the simple fact that we all like balloons – especially very large and very bright ones. And as hundreds of balloons take to the air in the finale, the viewer can’t help but smile. It’s filmmaking at it’s most fundamental and, whatever you take from it – be it intellectual or simple pleasures – The Red Balloon is a wonderful and timeless short film with universal appeal.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 9/10
The Red Balloon is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.