The Red Balloon

On Film / Essays — Apr 29, 2008

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.