• The Red Balloon

    By Michael Koresky

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    The simplicity and emotional clarity of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 The Red Balloon have made it one of the most beloved films of all time. The narrative is deceptively airy and pared down: Pascal, a young Parisian boy, retrieves a balloon tied to a lamppost, only to discover that it seems to have a mind and personality of its own. At times the balloon follows him around like a loyal dog, at others like a teasing best friend; the two form an almost inseparable bond, one that only an uncaring world would dare untether.

    From this modest premise, however, grows a work of breathtaking, elemental wonder—one that, despite its seemingly effortless naturalism, also required a host of cinematic tricks. It’s easy to imagine a boy and his faithful balloon companion; it’s something else to visually realize such a relationship on-screen. Lamorisse began as a documentarian, which makes this flight of fancy, his greatest success, all the more surprising. Rather than using his camera to straight-forwardly survey an environment and its people, here he had to rely on the persuasions of cinematography, editing, and sound—and some very thin threads—to make his audience believe in magic, that his titular character was a plausible living being, emoting and reacting without the benefit of a voice or even a face. In a sense, The Red Balloon is one of the all-time greatest examples of pure cinema. And as it’s geared toward children, it elegantly serves both as an introduction to the basics of film grammar and, at least for its legions of young American fans through the years, as a peek at a different culture. Call it My First Art Movie.

    Though the film often triggers cheerful nostalgia in its adult devotees, who remember it for its bursts of candy apple red, it is actually remarkably subdued. Lamorisse shot on location in the Ménilmontant section of Paris, a labyrinth of narrow alleys, cobblestones, and steep streets, overwhelmingly gray in its postwar days and so expressively melancholy that the appearance of the balloon’s blazing-red roundness serves as a nearly angelic counterpoint, a beacon of hope. The film is also memorably quiet, equally in Maurice Le Roux’s delicate woodwind score and in its sparing use of dialogue—the latter quality undoubtedly making it more accessible to international audiences. Yet, perhaps as the ultimate testament to Lamorisse’s abilities as a visual storyteller, the film won the 1956 Academy Award for best original screenplay.

    The dozen or so lines of dialogue Lamorisse does provide issue mostly from the mouth of the film’s human protagonist, played by the director’s five-and-a-half-year-old son, Pascal. With an unforced, blank-faced charm, Pascal is a key reason for the film’s enormous popularity. In the sixties, The Red Balloon was made available inexpensively through 16 mm film distributors and was projected in school libraries and cafeterias across the United States, becoming in the following decades the largest-selling nontheatrical print in American history. But, despite this omnipresence, The Red Balloon was never available on video and is only now making its DVD debut, in this stunning new transfer, its reds redder and its air lighter for a whole new generation of viewers.

    Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.

3 comments

  • By CLIVE T HUGHES
    January 20, 2012
    10:52 AM

    The Red Balloon - I have loved this film from the first time I saw it back in c1956 I think at the Curzon Cinema here in London. The Greeks have a word for it, Nostalgia. I have tried to find some of the locations in Paris but to no avail. I hope, before too long to visit at least one or two of the locations, if only to see just how Paris has changed. You can watch the entire film at this link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQhvgo62l74&feature=related
    Reply
  • By Sean
    August 15, 2012
    04:53 AM

    Unlike others I'm a part of the younger generation but when I watched this film on Hulu Plus I had that joyfulness of happiness and tears came right out of my eyes as I watched it and yes I've seen it before on TCM. But wasn't sure if I wanted to get it but once I saw it on Hulu Plus once again I had to buy it on Amazon. So if I can enjoy this short film I'm sure any age no matter how old nor how young you are I'm sure your bound to fall in love with this French classic. Rent it at the library or look it up on Hulu Plus and you'll see what I mean by. You will not be disappointed at all! I guarantee it.
    Reply
  • By sini
    May 18, 2014
    09:56 AM

    mesmerising blend of art and creativity.Along with the charm and naughtiness of childhood, It also states man`s quench for freedom and uniqueness
    Reply

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