Original title: Le ballon rouge
D: Albert Lamorisse / 34m
Cast: Pascal Lamorisse, Georges Sellier, Wladimir Popov, Paul Perey, Sabine Lamorisse, Michel Pezin
On his way to school one morning, a little boy, Pascal (Lamorisse), finds a red balloon tied to a railing. He takes it with him to school where he asks the caretaker to look after it for him until classes are over. The boy then takes the balloon home with him, but his mother releases it out of the window. However, instead of floating away, the balloon (which seems to have a mind of its own) merely hovers outside the window where the boy can see it.
The next morning Pascal calls to the balloon and it follows him as he heads off to school. He makes several attempts to grab the balloon but it keeps itself just out of reach. At school the balloon manages to get into his classroom which causes an uproar and the principal locks Pascal in his office; the balloon meanwhile has floated off. Reunited at the end of the school day, Pascal and the balloon head home, and encounter a little girl (Sabine Lamorisse) who has a blue balloon. The blue balloon reacts in a similar way to the red one, and follows Pascal until he can elude it. But then he encounters a group of boys who, urged on by jealousy, chase Pascal and try to destroy the red balloon.
A simple yet wonderfully filmed piece of magical realism, The Red Balloon is a movie that appeals to the child in all of us. Made in the post-war Belleville area of Paris, the movie serves as a record of the area during the Fifties before it was torn down and redeveloped. As Pascal travels from home to school and back again, the often austere backgrounds serve to highlight the enchanting nature of the story and the unlikely possibility of a red balloon with a mind of its own. It’s a tribute to Lamorisse’s vision though, that the balloon doesn’t feel out of place, even when you can clearly see various Parisians reacting to it with amusement and surprise.
Whimsical it may be, but the movie is also a poignant reminder of the innocence of youth and the power of the imagination. Pascal represents the inner child we all cling on to as adults, his acceptance of the balloon as natural as breathing. Seeing him being followed by the balloon and stopping every now and then to try and catch it is like seeing two friends playing a game together. It’s carefree and irreproachable, a gentle yet effective expression of the simple joys childhood can bring when everything around us excites our curiosity. It’s also no surprise that Pascal’s headmaster doesn’t view it in the same way, punishing him for what he sees as insubordination instead of youthful exuberance. Lamorisse is saying – quite rightly – that we should hold on to as much of that youthful exuberance as we can as adults; otherwise, how terrible will our lives become?
With the introduction of the gang (which leads to the balloon’s ultimate fate), the tale darkens, but necessarily so. Lamorisse is clever enough to realise that the innocence of youth doesn’t always last, and that some children lose it sooner than others. The gang are youth corrupted, their mean-spirited actions and envious behaviour the flipside to Pascal’s purity of mind and heart. They want to destroy the red balloon out of malicious spite, to see Pascal as defrauded of his decency as much as they have been. It’s one of Life’s hard lessons, that not everyone is as nice as you’d like them to be. And for a child like Pascal it’s possibly the hardest lesson to learn.
Lamorisse isn’t prepared to leave Pascal downhearted and dejected, though. As if further proof were needed that there is indeed magic – real magic – in the world, Pascal is given succour in such a wonderful, compassionate way that the movie’s conclusion gives the viewer no option but to grin with shared happiness (and maybe shed a tear or two as well). It’s one of the most uplifting endings to a movie ever, and a perfect finale for a tale that is honest and affecting throughout.
The Red Balloon carries such an emotional charge in its short running time that at times it’s hard to reconcile its faux-documentary presentation with the lyricism it displays at every turn. It’s a fascinating mix, and a spectacular achievement by Lamorisse that is a potent now as it was when it was first released. Belleville is filmed with such a candid eye for the decay of its surroundings that the area is almost a secondary character in itself, and Edmond Séchan’s photography is striking and evocative in equal measure.
But all this, finally, is underpinned by a sincere, genuine performance by Lamorisse’s son, Pascal. There’s a moment where he’s looking up at the balloon as it floats away from him. His gaze is querulous but unperturbed, as if he can’t quite work out why the balloon is behaving the way it is, but isn’t worried in the least that it won’t return to him. It’s like he’s trying to decipher the inner workings of the balloon’s “mind’ or the mechanics of the game they’re playing. It’s a peaceful moment of natural reflection that Pascal carries off as if he’s not even trying – he’s that good.
Rating: 9/10 – a sublime piece of movie making that warms the heart and reminds us what it is to be young and without a care in the world, The Red Balloon is a jewel to be treasured with every viewing; heartfelt, touching and inspirational, this is a bona fide classic that shouldn’t be missed.