Nowadays, kids have been trained to regard bludgeoning CGI spectacle as the sine qua non of their movie entertainment. Yet it’s a moot point whether hyperreal visualizations of literally anything stimulate the imagination or stunt it. Amid the current digital overkill, one looks back wistfully to a film artist who put his faith in the simple, natural magic of photography. Albert Lamorisse distrusted special effects, holding that such ready-made miracles cheated the audience of its capacity for wonder. He began his career as a documentarian (with the 1947 ethnographic short Djerba), and can be said to have never truly lost that vocation. In the live-action children’s films of the 1950s and ’60s for which he is best remembered, the fantasy elements take off precisely because they remain grounded in a solid bedrock of reality.
Thus in Lamorisse’s most celebrated work, The Red Balloon (1956), the preposterous aerial high jinks of the rubber hero gain authenticity from being situated within observational shots of street life in Ménilmontant. It hardly matters if (as seems likely) the frisky inflatable was twitched by invisible wires; the candid-camera reactions of bemused pedestrians bear witness to the hocus-pocus as a purely photographic event. When children play games of make-believe, they project their inner desires onto an external, alien world. Lamorisse honors these formative psychological processes as loyally and scrupulously as any grown-up can. His principled balancing of objective fact with childish wish fulfillment results in a new, paradoxical genre—the documentary of dreams. Its masterpiece is the sublime White Mane (1952).
Comparatively, the antic, metropolitan charm of The Red Balloon feels lightweight, so to speak. For the prior fairy tale plumbs archaic mysteries. The setting is the rugged Camargue region of southern France, where fishermen ply their meager trade in salt marshes and ranchers lasso wild horses on sun-baked dunes. Once again—though far more somberly here—Lamorisse’s utter fidelity to place both chastens and liberates the magic. He describes the Camargue first as a material environment, with its own distinct topography, economy, folkways, animal and vegetable lore. Then, by an uncanny doubling, this same concrete landscape is spiritualized and turned into the outward sign of the child’s mental theater. In his 1957 essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” André Bazin commends one sequence in particular. Fleeing the cruel injustices of human society, the boy, Folco (Alain Emery), and the imperious steed he has befriended stop to hunt a rabbit for their dinner. Another director would have faked the risky footage through editing. But with exemplary patience, Lamorisse waits for the moment of synchronicity when all three actors can be registered in a single, numinous frame.
He does resort to expedient subterfuges when nature won’t cooperate. We know, for instance, that the majestic stallion on-screen was an ingenious composite of several horses. Yet as Bazin notes, that speck of deceit is just what’s needed to translate White Mane into eternity—he becomes the Platonic ideal of horses, or their Jungian archetype. There’s also the delicate issue of the star’s performance. Between them, the anonymous quadrupeds that chipped in their services offer a characterization of awesome, Houyhnhnm-like dimensions, next to which Seabiscuit, Flicka, Black Beauty, and Pie in National Velvet are mere hacks. This accomplished equine thesping was, of course, entirely manufactured at the Steenbeck. As Soviet filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov once famously demonstrated, emotion and meaning can be synthesized by artful montage. A perfect model of the so-called Kuleshov effect occurs in an early scene, when the smitten Folco, desperate with unrequited longing, gazes on White Mane as he drinks from a pond. Hair strewn over eyes à la Veronica Lake, the bronco casts his admirer an appraising glance in return, before coquettishly sprinting away. It’s a safe bet that Lamorisse took the reverse shot separately, and his constructed illusion of a personality for the horse has dismayed some critics.
In a scathing 1956 article for Cahiers du cinéma, a young François Truffaut accuses Lamorisse of outright Disneyfication. That seems an impetuous, sledgehammer judgment, since anthropomorphism in fiction is ever a question of shades and degrees. The pantheistic beauty of White Mane shouldn’t be lumped with Mr. Ed. For better or worse, we live in enlightened times, when all thinking people condemn such practice as a crass violation of zoological truth. But political satire, comic strips, and children’s literature would be deeply impoverished without it. Though anthropomorphism is bad science, it proposes a different order of knowledge—namely, myth. By imputing a soul to dumb beasts, we humans affirm our primordial bond with nature. Perhaps because they’re close to being little creatures themselves, children pick up the habit spontaneously. Only later do they learn that animals are strictly things for use. The ferocious riders who attempt to break White Mane’s noble spirit seek a commercial opportunity. With the naïveté of a child, one might say, Lamorisse contemplates a prelapsarian paradise in which men and animals are full moral equals.
Mystical communion is certainly implied by an ethereal long shot of the half-clad Folco strolling the beach alongside his hoofed inamorato. The scene carries ripe erotic overtones that will unsettle many adult viewers. Freudians would classify the sovereign horse as a “part object”—the fantasy medium through which the boy tests out his dawning sexuality. That’s already subversive territory for a children’s film to explore, and Lamorisse goes still further. He embraces the death drive. Folco’s vision of Edenic harmony and freedom can’t be realized in the world as it is, so he and White Mane choose to vanish into oblivion. Or as the narrator lyrically puts it, they swim “straight ahead, straight ahead . . . to a wonderful place where men and horses are always friends.” The Red Balloon ends on a similar note of romantic defeat and transcendence, with the child, Pascal, soaring high above the slingshot-toting bullies who have betrayed his dreams. Truffaut deplored what he saw as the morbid escapism of both films, and indeed his own youthful surrogate, Antoine Doinel, would prove much more resilient. Children’s stories usually trace the rites of passage to maturity; but Lamorisse’s infants vote for annihilation over the dubious privilege of growing up.
Given that disquieting message, one is compelled to ask whether Lamorisse deserves the title of a children’s filmmaker at all. If you think kids are tender sugarplums who require permanent swaddling against life’s terrors, then Lamorisse should be declared a public menace. But if you allow that their fabled “innocence” doesn’t preclude intenser moods of ecstasy and despair, he is the one great bard that children’s cinema has produced. White Mane earned the short film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1953, and also won the Prix Jean Vigo—a fitting honor, in that the 1930s French director who inspired it had total empathy with the anarchic fancies of childhood. Lamorisse tried his hand at two features, Stowaway in the Sky (1960) and Circus Angel (1965), but there he may have spread his delicate, sonnetlike talent too thin. He eventually returned to documentary, and was tragically killed in a 1970 helicopter crash while filming The Lovers’ Wind (completed by others in 1978). An awful death, but poetically just, in that his cinema always consecrated flight.