I just watched Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short The Red Balloon for the first time in over 30 years. Like so many others, I first saw the film in grade school, in my case St. Andrew The Apostle, in Wheaton, Maryland, sitting in the all-purpose room (or was it the library?). Maybe we we kids were annoyed at having to be inside, or maybe it was a cold day and we were happy to be indoors. I remember stiff metal chairs, the whirring of the 16mm film strip, the dark room. Most of all, I remember the red balloon.
I was entranced for a lot of reasons—the solitude of the boy, the vividness of his imagination, the tormenting bullies. Much of the movie had blurred to an indistinct gray over the decades, but certain images remained indelible; I was curious what I might experience watching the film again as an adult. Remarkably, The Red Balloon hasn't aged at all, despite its post-Second War setting, much of which doesn't exist anymore or has been radically restructured in the last half century. The half-hour short remains as haunting and heartbreaking as it was when I watched as a kid. What I noticed this time around was Lamorisse's ingenious filmmaking, the wide-shots and cramped alleys, the skittery, hand-held joy and the boy's smacking footsteps echoing down the streets. I should qualify: I did respond to the film's form and style as a kid, I just, of course, couldn't articulate it. Great art communicates before it is understood, said T. S. Eliot, and I wonder if he had children in mind as well as adults.
There are so many great moments: the breathtaking tracking shot early in the film as the boy, clutching the balloon, runs across the bridge, the steam train roaring beneath him:
The balloon following the boy through the streets, playfully but obediently, the unspoken friendship growing between them:
The boy vaguely recognizing a kind of kindred spirit in a painting at an open-air street market. (At the same time nearby the balloon, off on its own, gazing curiously, maybe longingly, at its own reflection in a dusty mirror.) The boy's staring at a feminine doppelganger, another kid transported by, and requiring, little more than her imagination:
A girl's blue balloon crushing on the boy's balloon, a hint of complexity that even I got as a kid:
A fantastic shot of a narrow alley among many through which the boy is chased by the town bullies, the claustrophobic mise-en-scéne perfectly translating his fear and anxiety, the proximity of the boys and their terrorizing, the helplessness, the close calls:
Of course, the balloon's destruction at the hands (and feet) of the adolescent mob. I remember the throat-tightening sadness I felt as a kid watching the balloon's withering descent:
And the fantastic, surreal act of the city's hundreds of colorful balloons, hearing the boy's distress and converging from all corners, rescuing him en masse, lifting him away from his heartaches and over and beyond a city made up of bullies and uncomprehending grown-ups.
Well, I would imagine, you know, it's a story that has to do with the heart. You know, it's a love story, it's between the things you cherish the most. It's this poor little boy, we'll call him Pascal; he seems to have a grandmother, no sisters, no parents, and his only hope in life is his—his only real, real friend, you know, close friend is the red balloon. I would say all kids have, you know, either a pet or a dream that is close to their life, that makes sense.
Makes sense. I was happy to hear him speak of the film's power so many years later. In the world cast by The Red Balloon, a pet, a dream, a balloon, they're all the same.
While I was thinking about The Red Balloon, the Kills' "Black Balloon" from their Midnight Boom album popped up providentially on iTunes shuffle. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince's lyrics bear no relation to the film, but the melody evokes the boy's melancholy, the "farewells" in both movie and song rising and falling evocatively. I include it as a kind of echo.