DVD Movie Review: Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) (1956)

img_current_613_fg1The balloon goes up

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ L.P. Hartley’s observation is one of the most over- and ill-used in literature. Your reviewer hopes this critique of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 fantasy featurette will be an exception.

The little Parisian boy (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) and his gambol through a postwar monochrome Paris of bomb sites, poverty and austerity in pursuit of a toy red balloon with apparently a whimsical mind of its own, is one of the defining images of cinema; certainly of French and European cinema. It is perhaps the first great picture about childhood; perhaps the finest kids’ movie ever made; selling the pitch these days is almost beyond conception; even in the 1960s in a cinematically-creative country like France it must have been a trial; yet the result, which won Lamorisse a Palme d’Or for best short at Cannes in 1956 is a tour-de-force of atmosphere and innocence, an essay of just what the medium of cinema is capable; how many readers of this site, one wonders, fell in love with the movies thanks to The Red Balloon?

The DVD cover of this masterpiece shows the boy wagging an admonitory finger at his colourful, capricious ami. This embodies the (very childlike) anthropomorphism at the movie’s centre; we know balloons do not have feelings or memories, but we do. It is to Lamorisse that this anthropomorphism never spills over into schmaltz or sentiment; no mean feat.

The boy is not exactly raggedy, but neither is he rich; doubtless a child of inky fingers, a cartoon urchin of many grazes and clipped ears, he kicks balls against walls, dodges flics, scampers among derelict masonry (all that’s missing is a fat cleric or orotund nun or bushy-bearded grandee taking a prtfall; But it is neither he nor the balloon that lives longest in the memory; it is Paris, and the boundless freedoms that the balloon’s careering flight leads him through and/or toward, forever just out of reach and refusing to be tethered; not for nothing does Lamorisse make the balloon’s redness particularly vivid and the streets particularly grimy.

The street furniture looks eerily authentic because it’s real; only the splendid old open-platform, olive-green-and-cream Renault bus which boy and balloon catch is a restored museum-piece.

These are touches, along with many others, which gives the film a true soul of Francophile nostalgia in a way that, say, Amélie – inhabiting the same pre-Pompidou Paris – signally lacks. The charm is enhanced for us, at a distance, that this is a France we know little of; not the France of cars like the DS, of fast electric trains and the most modern of manners, but something altogether older, more…well, childlike. Both movies try and capture that Parisianiana that is as evanescent as the smell of the métro, but only Lamorisse truly succeeds. The French, of course, are past masters at this, as Proust and his madeleines attest. There are corny moments (given the above details, how could there not be?) such as when the red balloon is halted mid-flight by a peacock-blue balloon, held by, yes, a little girl, towards whom the boy turns and smiles bashfully.

Yes, of course it’s permissible; it will nonetheless confirm the prejudices of many about this film. Nonetheless, all movie buffs, no matter their degree of cynicism, should see The Red Balloon at least once, just to remind them what’s possible for a man with a movie camera. Enjoy it here.

35 mins. In French.

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