Not much new on the World Cinema stage, folks. Sure, there’s a little festival going on in Cannes, France (you might have heard of it, yes?), but otherwise the front this time of year is kind of quiet.
So, let’s reflect on one of my favorite films, foreign or not, that I happened to re-watch this weekend: The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge).
More after the cut.
Director Albert Lamorisse was a beloved French director of children’s films and documentaries. In fact, he usually combined the two unsuspecting styles in such a way (“documentaries of the imagination”) that his films often transcended playtime fantasy into the realm of the everyday, leaving many of his features, most memorably White Mane and The Red Balloon, with a magical aesthetic.
The only short film ever to win an Oscar for best original screenplay, The Red Balloon tells the story of young Pascal (Lamorisse’s own son Pascal), a nine-year-old Parisian boy living an ordinary life in a sketchy but absolutely gorgeous and cinematic Parisian neighborhood until the day that a large red balloon mysteriously floats into his life and stays.
The magical balloon has puppy-like attributes. Whether Pascal holds the string or not, the balloon follows him faithfully on his daily circuit to and from school and shops and vacant lots. A streetcar conductor refuses to let the balloon board, so they race to school together, where the balloon waits outside the door until Pascal returns. When a mean teacher punishes Pascal, the balloon hilariously taunts the teacher in a bit of supernatural slapstick. The balloon even finds its own friend, a big blue balloon held by a little girl.
What perhaps elevates the film above mere childhood fantasy (or perhaps better put, what the film does to elevate real life to childhood fantasy) is a kind of cinematic trickery that is more philosophy than camera method. Film historian Andre Bazin says it best:
“The Red Balloon is a tale told in film, a pure creation of the mind, but the important things about it is that this story owes everything to the cinema precisely because, essentially, it owes nothing.”
What Bazin champions is that the film is able to sustain its imagination by using “minimal editing” and having the balloon move in the same frame as its child actor. This is “essential cinema” for Bazin. Watching the Red Balloon again, I was struck time again by this achievement: how the balloon was able to swerve and follow the young boy in such a life-like way.