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.
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.
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.