If I told you there was a 34-minute, nearly silent movie about a boy and a balloon that was admired by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jim Henson, what do you think it could be? If you thought of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short, “The Red Balloon,” you would be entitled to float above the rooftops of Paris like its namesake, and never have to touch the burning ground again.
Throughout the 1960s, “The Red Balloon” was seen by legions of schoolchildren, through 16-mm. films distributed to countless schoolrooms, cafeterias, and libraries across America. Only in 2008 did this quintessential French film become available on DVD, “its reds redder and its air lighter,” in the words of film scholar Michael Koresky. But will a new generation of viewers take to its uplifting theme, or are we too jaded, now, to respond to the hopeful charms of “The Red Balloon”? We’re certainly willing to accept its tristesse.
The film is simplicity itself: a Parisian boy named Pascal rescues a shiny red balloon tied to a lamppost on a grimy, cobblestoned street in the Ménilmontant section of Paris. This is in melancholy, postwar France, and the only color in the dispirited streets and alleys is the vibrant red of the balloon itself—an insouciant splash of joy.
Magic ensues; the balloon has a mind and personality of its own, and it follows Pascal down the narrow streets, waiting for him, chasing him, playing with him, like a newfound pup. This lonely boy, who appears to live with a grim, no-nonsense grandmother, has found a friend.
Not so fast: almost everyone he encounters covets the balloon, or is discombobulated by it, or seeks to destroy it. His grandmother opens a window to let the balloon fly away. In church, the priest disapproves of the balloon. The school superintendent doesn’t like how it distracts Pascal’s classmates, so he confiscates the balloon and locks Pascal in a tiny room. A gaggle of young ruffians can’t stand for this buoyant thing of beauty to exist in their world, so they chase Pascal with his treasure throughout Paris, eventually destroying the red balloon with a slingshot, and finally stomping it to death.
The dialogue is sparse—there is almost no sound in the film, except for Maurice Le Roux’s sweet, sometimes jaunty woodwind score—yet “The Red Balloon” won the 1957 Academy Award for best original screenplay. It’s a rare example of pure visual storytelling, and Lamorisse used clever editing and invisible threads to weave his tale of friendship, despair, and hope. Koresky, who remembered seeing it as a boy, cheekily calls it “My First Art Movie.”
In the 66 years since its release, one can imagine Pascal growing into the rebellious adolescent in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, or listening to Charlie Parker on a Paris Métro platform, or storming the barricades in the Parisian student riots of 1968. It even evokes the midcentury grimness of certain English movies, such as A Taste of Honey, or Ringo Starr’s solitary walkabout through a joyless postwar English town in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night.
Many have treasured “The Red Balloon” (with the odd exception of Truffaut, who complained that so long as the balloon behaved like a puppy, “it was neither true to balloons nor to puppies”). And perhaps this celebrated short was many young Americans’ first taste of French cinema, or even their first glimpse of Paris on film. Lamorisse, who would have turned 100 this year, wrote, directed, and produced a handful of other well-regarded films and documentaries—he even found time to invent the board game Risk before his early death, at the age of 48 in 1970—but he will always be remembered for “The Red Balloon.”
It’s a rare example of pure visual storytelling, and Lamorisse used clever editing and invisible threads to weave his tale of friendship, despair, and hope.
While Lamorisse was making a documentary in Iran (Le Vent des Amoureux)—essentially a propaganda film for the Shah—his helicopter crashed as he was filming the Karaj Dam. He was buried in the Doulab Cemetery, in Tehran. His widow and his son, Pascal—who, at five, had so winningly played the boy in “The Red Balloon”—completed the film, which was nominated for a posthumous Oscar for best documentary feature. (One of Pascal’s two sisters, Sabine, also appeared in “The Red Balloon,” as a little girl with a blue balloon, a kindred spirit.)
So why did this little French film enchant so many around the world, garnering the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes, an Academy Award in America, and additional prizes in London, Mexico, and Tokyo? For one thing, it recognized the universal need for magic and imagination, as well as the universality of envy, and our penchant for destroying what’s rare and beautiful in this world. But what saves the film from despair is its ending: once the balloon has withered into nothing, balloons of many colors throughout Paris break from their owners and lift Pascal triumphantly into the Parisian skies.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Harper Simon is a singer-songwriter, producer, and creator of the multi-media project Meditations on Crime