The Whimsical Wonderment of Albert Lamorisse’s “Le Ballon Rouge” (1956)

A boy and girl with red and blue balloons pass each other by in Albert Lamorisse's "Le Ballon Rouge".

The first time I watched Le Ballon Rouge was in French class my junior year of high school on VHS. The assignment was also accompanied with a text version of the same story, wherein I had to answer questions (en français no less) about this young boy having gained and lost a red balloon. And while I tended to reject most of the ‘higher art’ thrust onto me as a child (I distinctly recall falling asleep in the back seat of a rental car while driving through some European country as a 13-year-old, as example) I always remembered this film.

Ok, so what is there to say about this 34-minute film that contains little to no dialogue? Well, firstly Le Ballon Rouge is told via the perspective of a child (played by the director’s son, Pascal) in how it portrays both wonderment and dream. We open with a still shot of early morning in Ménilmontant, a neighborhood of Paris in the aftermath of World War II, wherein a young boy enters the screen and leans to pet a small gray cat. Then, from above, he witnesses a large, red balloon whose string is tangled in a street lamp. The boy, in effect, ‘saves’ the otherwise trapped balloon, and this results in a friendship. The balloon, which takes on a life of its own, develops a loyalty and even perhaps a love for the boy, as the two navigate the streets. At times, the balloon plays games and races ahead, only to then stall and hide within a corner in its attempt at peek-a-boo. As they continue on, the boy encounters street folks—young and old—and indeed seems out of place in this world of ‘grown ups.’

The adults, too self absorbed in their own travails, barely seem to notice the boy and his balloon, and those who do notice view him as nothing more than a nuisance. Meantime, there lurks a group of ‘bully boys’ who have since eyed the balloon with the intention of stealing it, or at least destroying it. They chance upon the boy and ultimately they abduct the vulnerable balloon when he enters a pastry shop. Inevitably, a chase ensues where the bullies throw stones at the poor balloon, till one aims a slingshot and hits it, dead on. Slowly we are then given a glimpse of the red balloon shrinking, shrinking, shrinking—till lowering in defeat, only to be smashed by some mean, pre-pubescent, masculine foot. And if you never thought that the destruction of an inanimate object couldn’t make you cry, then perhaps you’ve never seen this film.

Albert Lamorisse also directed White Mane, which is another child’s film that unfolds similarly to a storybook. There, we are also presented with ‘evil people’ who wish to destroy the bond a child develops with another being, this time with a white horse. Whether balloon or horse, there seems to exist no protection. Both films contain little to no dialogue and carry the emotion within the scenes themselves—bond developed, bond broken, except is it? At the end of Le Ballon Rouge, it seems that the world of balloons have heard of their red friend’s death. Suddenly, all begin to appear—flying out from windows, shops, and babies’ hands. Collectively, the balloons begin to congregate around the boy, only to offer their strings, to where he reaches and they lift, and lift, and lift, till he is floating among them, having now become one among them, as the boy and the balloons are now inseparable.

Both Lamorisse films put me in mind of the recently deceased great poet Bruce Ario who, within his verse, often stood alongside with sadness, feeling that longing and loss, only to then have something uplift him in the end. If you know anything about the ario form, it falls within a 3-3-3-1 format. The final line (the 1) is the ‘uplift’. This is the moment when the boy reaches for the congregate of balloons, lifting upward and flying. Hence, the film, in itself, much resembles the ario form.

Albert Lamorisse also directed a documentary film on Iran. The quality is such that it appears to have been recorded from a VCR cassette, but the imagery reminds me of what I’ve seen in some of the best of Herzog’s documentaries. It would be great if someday the folks at Criterion could clean this film up, as I have little doubt of its excellence within its best form.

Much like Chris Marker’s 28-minute La Jetee, Le Balloon Rouge is one of those films that mindfully lingers—much like the balloon itself, as it playfully waits for the boy outside the window. Despite having watched Le Balloon Rouge for the first time as teenager for my French assignment, it most definitely did not leave me. So what does the film mean exactly? Can we even limit such meaning to one thing? Childhood innocence and playfulness thrives as the boy navigates the streets, only to inevitably face those life bullies who come to shoot it down. I suppose it means what you make it to mean, and as with any great work of art, it will doubtlessly inspire ideas that one can transport elsewhere.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Longing & Regretting: On Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “The Wild Pear Tree” (2018), A World of Green Trees: Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951)Stand Like Trees: The Overlooked Poetry of Judith Wright