One morning in Paris, on his way to school, little Pascal (Pascal Lamorrise) discovers a shiny, red balloon tied to lamppost. He sets it free, shields it from the rain, under umbrellas belonging to bemused passers-by, and by treating the red balloon like a real person seems to bring it genuinely alive. It follows Pascal around the city, playing hide and seek. When a grumpy schoolteacher locks Pascal up in class, the balloon stalks the old grouch and bops him on the head. Boy and balloon enjoy happy days, but lurking around the corner are a gang of mean kids waiting to steal it away.
Running a mere thirty-four minutes and virtually dialogue free, this French children’s classic ably demonstrates how the simplest of ideas can make powerfully poetic cinema. Working much like an animator, writer-director Albert Lamorrise really does draw a moving performance out of the red balloon. As absurd as that sounds, you can see it come to life before your very eyes when chasing after a bus, gawping at its own reflection or - in the most magical of moments - saying hello to another, blue balloon being carried along by a little girl (Sabine Lamorisse). Aiding in the enchantment is the lyrical score by Maurice Leroux, which tingles and chimes like the balloon’s gently pulsating heart.
It is perhaps the frailty of the red balloon that makes us invest so much in its survival. The child’s plaything comes across as a symbol of dreams and joy returning to post-war Paris, whose bombed out ruins we see children clambering across here. However, the film’s message has been subject to fierce debate over the years, with some revelling in it encapsulates the joy of being a child again, while others - most notably Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott - calling it “a cynical fusion of capitalism and Christianity.” Kennicott would repeatedly denounce Lamorisse’s films as “taking place in a world of lies”, as would the great François Truffaut, who saw Lamorisse as a crass, feel-good sentimentalist. Fair enough and if you feel that way, there’s always Kes (1969). But even Truffaut could not deny that, like Walt Disney, Lamorisse is able to yoke warmth, laughter and sorrow out of an inanimate object - elements essential to cinema. When the gang of boys cruelly pelt the red balloon with stones, our hearts ache with sorrow. Surely that is worth some admiration.
An interesting character, Albert Lamorisse had equal success with his earlier children’s short, White Mane (1953), and also invented the popular strategy board game Risk. He was foremost a documentary filmmaker and whilst filming in Iran in 1970, died in a tragic helicopter accident, with his movie eventually completed by his wife and son. Pascal Lamorisse and his father made a feature-length balloon adventure called Stowaway in the Sky (1960), a movie that so impressed its narrator Jack Lemmon, he bought the American rights. The Red Balloon also inspired Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), a slightly more self-conscious drama by Hou Hsiao-hsien and starring Juliette Binoche.