• The Red Balloon: Written on the Wind

    By Brian Selznick

    My first trip to Paris took place inside the darkened cafeteria of Warnsdorfer Elementary School in East Brunswick, New Jersey. A few times each year, the entire student body was brought together to watch movies cast from a rickety 16 mm projector at the back of the room onto a large white screen pulled awkwardly down from the ceiling. I don’t remember if we were told what we were about to see, but sitting there in the dark and listening to the projector’s soft whir would give me a thrill every time. And though the seats were uncomfortable and light leaked in from the drawn shades, I was always ready to be transported. Perhaps it was fourth grade, or it might have been fifth, but I’ll never forget watching The Red Balloon, French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s nearly wordless 1956 film starring his son, Pascal, and a beautiful, unnaturally round and rosy red balloon.

    As with young Pascal and his balloon, my relationship to the film was love at first sight. Did I know that The Red Balloon was filmed and set in faraway Paris? The film doesn’t include any shots of the Eiffel Tower, the icon that could have immediately clued me in. Yes, the city was strange and the sparse bits of language required subtitles, but I understood Pascal as if I had grown up next door to him. Even my experience of walking to school seemed similar to Pascal’s. I lived one block away, but I had to cross streets and pass houses, fences, and trees to get there; though it couldn’t have been more than several hundred yards, this was my entire world—and it takes quite a while to walk across the world. And like Pascal’s, my world was filled with many terrors: the dreaded gym class, the awful older kids, the unsupervised expanse of the blacktop behind the school. But there were also many ways to find refuge: making projects in the art room, putting on shows with the chorus, playing “monster” at the end of my block, reading with the librarian, and, of course, escaping into movies.

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    I’ve asked many of my friends, mostly children of the 1970s, if they recall The Red Balloon, and it turns out that my experience at Warnsdorfer Elementary was far from unique. In fact, because of the inexpensive deals forged with 16 mm film distributors, The Red Balloon was the single largest-selling nontheatrical print in history (even before Janus Films bought all English-speaking territory rights in 1981), and its distribution to elementary schools across the United States was a notable foreshadowing of home video. Remembered with great love, the film, for many, is often inextricable from tactile memories of being shepherded into school cafeterias or gymnasiums or libraries, or hunkering down in a sleeping bag at camp.

    The Red Balloon has returned to me again and again. I rediscovered it after college, when I came to New York City in 1989, working at a store called Eeyore’s Books for Children, with the hope of one day illustrating and writing books myself. I knew nothing about children’s literature at this point, so my boss took me under his wing and sent me home every night with bags of books to read; one of my favorites was Lamorisse’s picture-book version of The Red Balloon, filled with stills from the movie. Recently, as I prepared to rewatch Lamorisse’s tale, about a lonely boy’s powerful bond with what seems to be an equally lonely balloon, which he bravely rescues from the top of a lamppost, I had so many questions running through my mind: What is it about this movie that made us fall in love with it as children? Would it be meaningful to me as an adult as well? After several more viewings, I found that this thirty-four-minute movie was richer and stranger than I remembered, and adults as well as children will find themselves thinking about its implications long after it ends.

    As a child, I longed for two specific things that I now realize Lamorisse’s movie embodies: the presence of a loving friend and the knowledge that real magic exists in the world. Childhood, in so many ways, is about learning to navigate the world around us, to make sense of what seems overwhelming and gigantic. Having a special companion makes that experience more manageable and less terrifying. To kids, the world of grown-ups is often alien and untranslatable, and so magic becomes a lens through which the incomprehensible universe (as Einstein once called it) becomes comprehensible.

    The great children’s stories, which we believe so strongly when we’re young, reveal themselves as rich and beautiful metaphors once we’ve grown up; think of how adults have used J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or fairy tales like “Cinderella” to understand themselves and others. An adult watching The Red Balloon will not find it difficult to see the title character as a symbol of spirituality, friendship, love, transcendence, the triumph of good over evil, or any of the countless other things that a simple, round red balloon can represent. But perhaps we’re better off enjoying some things the way a child understands them: not as metaphors but as stories. In the end, I think there’s something nice about allowing the balloon to just be. I guess that’s what you do with good friends—you let them be themselves.

    The Red Balloon is filled with indelible images, but as I screened it again, I was struck repeatedly by the filmmaker’s use of sound. It’s a nearly wordless film, but it’s not silent. There is Maurice Le Roux’s enchanting score, full of sweet melodies, jaunty strings, mischievous woodwinds and horns, something that sounds like a music box, and surprising moments of panic and fear. Especially lovely is the theme that plays when we first realize that the balloon has a consciousness of its own: After Pascal takes it inside his apartment, the balloon is released out of the window by the boy’s guardian, yet instead of floating away into the sky, it hovers outside the balcony and waits for its new friend in midair. The music shifts and slows down; overlaid with the tinkling sound of bells, or possibly a xylophone, it hints at things mysterious and fantastic. The soundtrack is also layered throughout with the city’s ambient traffic and transportation sounds, the screams of bullies, Pascal’s footsteps clacking on cobblestones. Lamorisse added all the aural effects and minimal dialogue in postproduction—as Jacques Tati did for his urban fantasies—resulting in a slight disconnect between what we see and hear, lending every moment an otherworldly, magical edge.

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    This rich soundscape becomes even more apparent when it stops during the balloon’s long, brutal, and silent death scene at the film’s climax. Indeed, it’s this death that is most central to The Red Balloon and what gives it its weight and meaning. The death of the balloon affected me greatly at a young age; it was clear even then that this moment proved that childhood fantasies aren’t silly or simple. They’re as real and important as life and death. In what seems to be an endless, unedited shot, the camera doesn’t flinch as it mercilessly records our shiny red friend’s perfect surface wrinkling and blistering after the bullies attack it with stones. The helium is slowly leaking away, and the balloon suffers and succumbs to gravity. We’ve seen a balloon wither away a thousand times in real life, but because Lamorisse, using film’s basic properties of photography and editing, has made us so strongly identify this balloon as a living, thinking, feeling entity, its destruction can be read in no other way than as a death. In fact, a murder: in a final, brutal moment of terrible mercy, a boy, seen only from the waist down, stomps upon and completely deflates the balloon, putting it out of its misery.

    But the movie doesn’t end in death . . . something else happens, something transcendent. It’s implicit that Pascal’s love for the balloon brings about this moment, which offered me great joy and relief as a child in the wake of such sorrowful loss. I believe Lamorisse’s final image of transcendence, which could easily be read as religious or more generally spiritual, is the real point of the story, and it best evokes the film’s desire for magic. We want to believe that we can rise above the difficulties of our lives in the same way Pascal does in the end, thanks to the love he shared. Love that strong is meaningful to everyone, children as well as adults, and Lamorisse shows how it ties us to the larger world around us and vice versa.

    But even if real magic exists, it’s still a harsh world that Lamorisse depicts. His Paris is rather washed-out, although its grayness seems heightened so that the balloon appears more red, more alive; the city never seems just drab or rainy, but to exist in contrast to the title character. Pascal, who’s surrounded by many terrible adults, monstrous bullies, sharp objects, and dangerous empty lots (still partly destroyed from World War II, perhaps), hardly ever smiles. In fact, he’s quite enigmatic. During a mysterious and haunting scene in a flea market, set to the lonely strains of a distant violin, Pascal comes face-to-face with an antique, nearly life-size painting of an isolated girl, while the balloon confronts itself in a mirror. What kind of strange self-realization is going on here? Does Pascal see himself reflected in the blank stare of the painted girl in the same way that the balloon, for the first and only time, sees itself, alive? Is it a moment where both the boy and the balloon contemplate their loneliness, which ultimately confirms their need for each other?

    What’s so striking about this sequence is that Lamorisse offers no answers; he simply poses the questions, and, as in poetry, we are left to fill in the blanks. This, I believe, is what lifts The Red Balloon from a simple children’s movie to a lovely work of art. Pascal’s blankness (reflected in the painting at the flea market) makes it easy for us to project ourselves onto him. We are Pascal. We have a red balloon, whatever it may be. It is by our side as we run through the streets of Paris, avoiding danger, falling in love, being saved, and finally, hopefully, borne aloft—away from sorrow and into the air—by all the balloons of Paris.

    Author and illustrator Brian Selznick’s latest children’s book, the Caldecott Medal–winning illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was also named one of the New York Times’s Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year and was a National Book Award finalist.

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27 comments

  • By Hans M.
    April 22, 2009
    06:10 AM

    I actually recall seeing this on public TV when I was at home, though I was elementary school age. I was such a sentimental little boy that it affected me deeply to see the slaughter of the balloon by the bullies. I think the film stayed with me over the years because of its powerful story: it built up this charming relationship between Pascal and the Red Balloon only to have it decimated it such a brutal way. It was pretty harsh on my emotions as kid of 8 years or so.
    Reply
  • By samantha
    May 08, 2009
    09:41 AM

    Thank you for the wonderful book.I think i'm going to like the movie.i read the book (4x). I really love the book so much. write back at this email samanthamorris71@yahoo.com
    Reply
  • By taylor at GMS(griswold middle school)
    October 05, 2009
    05:24 PM

    i love the red balloon my french class watched i about two years ago and i've never haerd or read about it on the internet before. it is an amazing movie and i love the boy he is so cute(little cute not love cute) he is so funny and u can tell he is very attached to that red balloon.now i don't like french class that much our old teacher left then last year we had a new teacher and now this year we have another new teacher. it's ok though i can live with it it's not as if i had to live in france or stay in french class forever. i like your site my teache put it on her homework site so i had to check it out.
    Reply
  • By Jay
    February 06, 2010
    10:00 AM

    red baloon is awesome
    Reply
  • By Bryan Johnston
    January 12, 2011
    05:17 AM

    What an excellent write up Brian for possibly one of the best short films ever. I grew up with the Red Balloon. It was shown at school and once on TV in England, those two showings were enough to instill memories of a truly excellent film. I hope they never remake this film but i guess one day they might. i'll let you into a secret as well, look very carefully at the closing shots of the Red Balloon and in the distance you will see that famous icon The Eiffel Tower.
    Reply
    • By Karen Warren Snyder
      October 15, 2011
      10:34 PM

      I was born the year this film was made. My most inspirational teacher who I had for first, second and third grade, Shirley McGinnis showed this film to us in class once a year. I agree it is one of the best short films ever made. I have never forgotten the film and how it touched me way back in the first grade. I wish I knew exactly where it was filmed. I'm visiting Paris soon and would love to walk the same streets as Pascal and the Red Balloon.
  • By KarieAnn Zeinert
    November 28, 2011
    12:08 AM

    I too remember the whir and flicker of the film projecters on a Friday afternoon with classics like The Red Balloon and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was these experiences along with Friday sing a longs to Albert Hall and The Day the Music Died that I remember most fondly from elementary school. As a fourth grade teacher I hope to leave my students with similar experiences by sharing my own hobbies, interests and passions. Thank you for writing and illustrating such a wonderful book in Hugo. I read it to my 12 year old son page by page for his birthday. He loved being read to just like Hugo and couldn't wait to turn the page.
    Reply
  • By David Rayner
    May 04, 2012
    04:25 AM

    There is a shot of the Eiffel tower in the film. It can be seen in the far distance as Pascal is running up the street just before he stops at the bridge as the steam train goes by underneath. In Great Britain, the film had a general release in cinemas as the supporting film to the Royal Performance Film of 1956, "The Battle Of The River Plate" and was seen by just about everyone going to the cinema in 1956 / 1957. However, I've noticed that most Americans only saw it as a 16mm print at school and so it probably wasn't given a general 35mm release in cinemas in the United States. As for me, I went to see "The Red Balloon" at the cinema here in England as a ten year old boy in April, 1957 and thought it was totally wonderful and I am still enchanted by it fifty-five years later.
    Reply
  • By David Rayner
    May 04, 2012
    04:55 AM

    Sorry, I should have typed that the Eiffel tower can be seen in the distance just AFTER Pascal stops by the railway bridge as the steam train goes by underneath. I would say that the tower looks to be about three or four miles away.
    Reply
  • By Jennifer Adam
    November 09, 2012
    04:01 PM

    OK, I watched this movie in elementary school in the 70s and loved it (cried of course but adored it). I also saw Paddle to the Sea and thought it was great. The one other film I remember well from school is one that I am hoping someone else might know the name of. It was set in another country (perhaps Morocco or Iran or someplace like that?) and it was about a kid who comes home from the market with a little goldfish. He puts it in a bowl of water and then leaves the room. There is a black cat in the room and it starts watching the fish through the bowl. For some reason the fish starts jumping around and eventually it jumps right out of the bowl and onto the table. The cat approaches and watches as the fish lays there gasping for air. Just as you think all is lost, the cat picks the fish up in its mouth by the tail and drops it back into the water. End of film. Don't know how they taught the cat and fish to do what they did but it was a wonderful and powerful little film and I would love to see it again. Anyone out there have any ideas? Thanks!
    Reply
    • By Genisis
      February 25, 2014
      08:55 AM

      The Golden Fish was the name of that short Jennifer. I loved that one too. only now I figure dozens of little gold fish died for that one.
  • By Paul
    December 01, 2012
    10:45 PM

    I seem to remember watching "The Red Balloon" at least once a year in grade school, in California, back in the '60s. We also watched a rather dreadful film that nobody seems to be looking up, about a young Mexican boy, about to attend his first communion, who longs for a pair of shiny black shoes. It'd never pass muster today, but even then---while I loved "the Red Balloon" I remember I loathed the other film. Fortunately, there's an exquisite restoration available on DVD. And yes, in one shot, there is a view of the Eiffel Tower, past the end of the street. We just got back from Paris, where I looked up the church in the film, and it's also been restored, and is much more light and airy on the interior than the film would seem to indicate. There's also a flickr webpage dedicated to the sites used in the movie, and what those surviving today look like.
    Reply
  • By Monica
    February 25, 2013
    04:18 PM

    Like most of you have previously commented, I, too, saw this film in my elementary school cafeteria, but in Los Angeles, CA, so you can see how an entire generation across the U.S. was impacted by this great film. As a catholic catechist, I use this film in my religion classes because it is such a perfect Christian allegory to use during the season of Lent, just before Easter. And the lead character's name is Pascal- it couldn't get more convenient than that!
    Reply
  • By Tim
    March 12, 2013
    09:46 PM

    Masterpiece!
    Reply
  • By Peggy
    March 17, 2013
    11:02 AM

    Bravo!! Like you, I too was mesmerized by this film, listing it in my top ten my whole life! I had seen it only once at age 9 but certain visual and emotional aspect have never lost there impact nor diminished from my memory. I had a dog that behaved not un-like the Red Balloon. I recently searched and found it on Netflix and for the first time in 44 years I was able to enjoy the full glory of this enchanting tale once again. I think it's meaning has has toyed with my psyche for decades! Your beautiful synopsis is eloquent and verbalized all that I could not put into words all of these years although I had an unspoken understanding. Merci!
    Reply
  • By Brendan
    March 24, 2013
    03:28 AM

    I have a faint memory of this film from my youth (70's). I watched it again with my daughters last night (Netflix has it now) and I must watch it again. This morning, I woke up thinking about the movie. What was there significance to The Red Balloon other than a whimsical story of a Balloon being a friend to the boy? I came to this site trying to find out if others had studied the significance of the Red Balloon beyond just a children's film. I was happy to see that others agree that there was an obvious spiritual side to the movie. Even more to the point (and believe me I am not some bible thumper), I found it a metaphor for my relationship with my God (and specifically Jesus Christ). Did I say I am not a big religious guy? I am not! Though I admit my spirituality does play a role in my life. I wonder if the film maker, being French, was Catholic. There are obvious nods to religion in the movie (the nuns do come to mind, though I need to watch again to see what other signs of Catholicism, if any, I see). I wonder does anyone else see The Red Balloon as a Jesus figure? Dieing at the hands of the people, In death, the magic of the Balloon only becoming more powerful and truly life changing for the boy who had his relationship with the Red Balloon? This Jesus figure, the Red Balloon, a friend, not a foe. Accepting. Loving even. Loyal. Well so I began to think until I thought about the encounter with the little girl holding the Blue Balloon. How to reconcile a Jesus figure with an obvious attraction to the Blue Balloon (issues of celibacy and deviancy aside!). Then it occurred to me, there is only one person who is symbolized wearing blue in nearly every depiction of her. That would be Jesus's mother. So I must watch it again and see if this metaphor holds throughout the movie. But did these thoughts occur to anyone else? Lastly, whether you agree with religion or not, you cannot deny that some of the greatest art ever produced was of religious nature. It does not make the movie any more significant (or less so) if it does or does not have these religious overtones. It is however another sign that this is truly a great film. Poetic, indeed.
    Reply
  • By Mark R. Young
    March 24, 2013
    05:56 PM

    I'm quite certain I first saw "The Red Balloon" in the 1970s on the CBS Children's Film Festival TV show that used to air on Saturday mornings. Jacques Demy's "Donkey Skin" is my most memorable "16mm projected film at school" event.
    Reply
  • By Raz
    August 22, 2013
    09:08 AM

    I saw The Red Balloon in 10th grade english class. The teacher liked to interspace books and short stories with movies.
    Reply
  • By Raz
    August 22, 2013
    09:09 AM

    Oh yeah, that was in 1972 and there is nothing like the whirl and click of a film projector
    Reply
  • By Raz
    August 22, 2013
    09:11 AM

    And if you want to see a referance to it, watch Shoob Tube, Randy Cunningham 9th Grade ninja. You could tell one of the writers was a fan.
    Reply
  • By G G.
    October 05, 2013
    01:04 AM

    I cannot remember the first time I saw this film but it was in black and white on BBC television. Although, it was many years later that I saw the film in colour, I always remember the balloon being brilliant red even on a black and white tv. As a lonely child myself, I have always identified with this work; in this is I am not alone. The small child that dies in "Don't Look Now" reflects back to the two small children in red hooded coats holding blue balloons. The lost red child in "Schindler's List"... The bright red object on a (largely) monochrome background still features strongly as an icon in post modern art and media. I have used the small red hooded child in my own work as a representation of myself and other lonely children. This film is a masterpiece in miniature and still brings tears to my eyes. G G Marquez
    Reply
  • By Eric Pomert
    April 04, 2014
    12:48 PM

    I just watched the film again,and what struck me was the power of the relationship between the boy and the balloon. Separately, they are unremarkable. Together, they burst into a powerful expression of the imagination, with its limitless, lonely power to restore wonder to the mundane.
    Reply