Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Red Balloon (Films Montsouris, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Red Balloon, a 1956 film made in Paris by Albert Lamorisse, who cast his real-life son Pascal as the human owner of the titular character, a red balloon that is his only friend; it follows him around, tries to accompany him to school, hangs out all night outside his bedroom window so he can fetch it again the next morning, and in general shows capabilities that tread just on the thin edge of believability without stretching into the out-and-out supernatural. Lamorisse père both directed and wrote the film, and he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1956 — the only time that award has been given to a film of less than feature length (34 minutes). The movie premiered in the U.S. as an episode of the General Electric Theatre TV show — albeit in black-and-white — and while the U.S. distributor flooded the American school system with 16 mm prints for audio-visual showings for years I’d only seen it on black-and-white TV and therefore I had to take it on faith that the balloon was red. In some ways it’s two different films depending on whether you see it in black-and-white or color; in black-and-white the atmosphere young Pascal (the character has the real name of Lamorisse fils) is trying to escape — the world of schoolhouses, buses, bakeries and other adult environments hostile to him traipsing around with a balloon as his pet — looks grungier and more oppressive, and in some ways the balloon itself is a more effective symbol of freedom if it’s not this huge neon-red dot maneuvering itself around the frame of the film. (The effects were mostly done with wire work, and an “Goofs” contributor identified at least one sequence where the wire could be seen.)

At the end our little hero is confronted by a gang of bullies who are determined to get at him by destroying the red balloon; one of them takes it out with a well-aimed blow from a slingshot (a surprisingly frightening image for what’s until then been a pretty guileless children’s movie) and its skin starts to curdle, making it resemble a relief globe of the moon (well, if the moon were red, anyway), until either he or another of the bullies — Lamorisse père keeps them powerfully ambiguous instead of allowing them to become distinct characters — denies the poor red balloon a decent death by stomping on it. Then, in Lamorisse’s famous fairy-tale ending, all the balloons in the Ménilmontant district of Paris (where the film takes place) depart their owners and flock en masse to little Pascal, raising him above the city and above the petty hatreds of the kids who bullied him. As a bullied kid myself, I identified with this film big-time, and seeing it now that I’m an old and jaded adult I still identify with it even though it does become a bit too precious, a bit too cute, at times. Certainly Albert Lamorisse and his wife Satine lucked out in the genes department producing their leading man; Pascal is ineffably cute — tow-headed, not too skinny, not too fat, with a guileless look of innocence on his face and a bod (especially as shown off by the grey flannel outfit he wears in the first half) that probably made any NAMBLA members watching this film cream in their pants. It looks different to me now than it did when I was Pascal Lamorisse’s age in the film but it still holds up surprisingly well — and it’s just the right length to sustain interest in its rather slender story (avoiding a mistake Lamorisse père made four years later when he attempted a feature-length sequel, also starring his real-life son).