' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Red Balloon (1956)

Friday, January 08, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Red Balloon (1956)

As a kid the best week of the year was always – always – the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when school was out and I was home, just bowl games and bliss. Of course, the week following New Year’s was the flip side to that coin, the worst week of the year, doubly ironic and sad since it was the first week of the year, when everything was supposed to be looking up, starting anew. But it couldn’t be helped. I mean, you just survived four months of school for what? Another five months of school?! Oh, the vengeful gods and their cruel pranks. Granted, sometimes January 1 fell on, like, a Wednesday and you could ease into the transition. But just as often January 1 was a Monday, leaving with you with four brutal days of re-entry. It was more than an adolescent soul could bear. When we would drop off my visiting grandparents at the airport and then watch their American West flight take off, I remember wishing I could join them and just fly away. 

Albert Lamorisse’s beloved 36-minute short “The Red Balloon” (1956) begins with a wide shot of Paris seen from atop a hill in the Ménilmontant neighborhood. A young boy, Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse), wanders into view, the huge frame emphasizing that he is alone. That loneliness, however, is rectified by the red balloon he finds tied to a lamppost in the next shot, which he sees before us, the camera tilting up for an eye-popping reveal, the redness of the balloon brilliantly contrasted against the drab greys of the surrounding buildings. Indeed, coming only a dozen years after the end of WWII, “The Red Balloon” leans into its bleak war-torn environment. That reality not only highlights the balloon visually but imbues what is essentially a fairytale with an impressive verité, hinting at how, despite so much kid-friendliness, the movie does not shy away from complex emotions

The stray kitten Pascal briefly comes across in the film’s opening shot emblemizes how the balloon becomes akin to a pet, the string like a leash, proudly leading him around the neighborhood. There is something moving in how Lamorisse conveys this story entirely through visuals, excising any explanations or expository philosophy, simply allowing the balloon and the boy to exist on their own terms, an unlikely friend providing this young boy strength in himself to navigate the cruel world. The world is cruel, after all, brought home in a group of bullies taking umbrage with this balloon if for no other reason than to stomp out any joy in the world. And they do stomp on it, literally, the balloon that is, after it has been punctured and fallen to the ground as Lamorisse transforms a familiar moment of a balloon running out of air into nothing less than a death, a darker, more lyrical version of the goldfish toilet funeral meant to ease children into lessons about passing on. 

And though “The Red Balloon” might have ended there, Lamorisse has one more twist up his sleeve, all of Paris’s balloons floating in, as if as if by spiritual instinct, when Pascal’s red friend passes away, to band together and lift him up. It evokes “Up”, though that animated film’s balloons came at the beginning rather than the ending, a crucial difference. Though Lamorisse takes great care to temper this fantasy with striking doses of reality, in the end, he still allows Pascal to float away. 

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