NR | 34 min | Fantasy, Drama | 1957
Screenwriter-producer-director Albert Lamorisse’s short film is as diminutive as a child in the company of the most beloved films, many of which are over four times as long. Yet it packs in layers of meaning about the wonders of childhood, joy and sorrow, good and evil, life and death.
En route to school in downtown Paris, a little boy (Lamorisse's son, 6-year-old Pascal) finds a mysterious, and, as it happens, magical red balloon, with a mind of its own. Because he can't help himself, he takes it with him. About half his size, it's unlike any he's seen. Impish, it follows him everywhere.
Through a Child’s EyesLamorisse’s camera points almost unblinkingly at his two subjects even during the tortured climax. His medium, long and extra-long shots offer an intimate portrait of humanity, with hardly any close-ups, hinting that children must believe that joy will prevail, or sorrow would be unbearable to them as adults.
His camera doesn’t step indoors, preferring to track the balloon’s largely outdoor life, bathed as it is in the soft Paris sunlight. The balloon’s bulbous bright red color stands out in streets flooded with dull grays, blues, browns, and blacks
As children pour out of their school doorway, you notice how the boy and his schoolmates are only half the balloon’s height; dwarfs in a world of adult giants, mortals in a world of gods who, it seems, can do everything quicker, and better than dwarfs can.
But Lamorisse subverts that. No matter how stealthily his camera crawls, it’s the boy who spots the balloon first, only later does it reveal itself to us, the audience. In fact, some adults don’t notice it at all. Yes, children see the world differently, but in many ways they’re more far-sighted than adults, seeing things as they should be seen, without the artifice of adulthood.
Lamorisse’s MasterpieceThe flea market scene ponders loneliness and the need for companionship. The boy gazes at the portrait of a little girl (a possible playmate) while, nearby, his balloon seems to gaze at its reflection in a discarded mirror.
Lamorisse is not saying that objects, even helium-filled ones, are better than people. Quite the opposite. If a child can warm to a faceless, lifeless object, how much easier ought it to be for adults to warm to each other’s life-filled smiles and laughter? Loving someone other than ourselves makes life’s trials more tolerable, its enjoyments more enjoyable; love thrives, even grows, only when it’s shared.
Sure, Lamorisse shows some adults (the boy’s school staff and his grandmother) being too hurried or preoccupied, robbing children of happiness, expecting them to be too adult-like too soon: grown-up, rule-bound, obsessed with tasks, deadlines, and the clock. But he shows others slowing enough to let children wonder and then partake in that wonder.
Yes, all adults were children once but they either rejoiced in another’s joy or didn’t. Watch how the girl with the blue balloon (Lamorisse’s daughter, Sabine) smiles when her balloon flies off to frolic with the boy’s.
Lamorisse depicts wonder as immersion of the self in the pulsing, throbbing present. When the boy stops by a street cat, he pets it; to him, affection, the giving or getting of it, isn’t dessert, it’s the main course. A lady he’s never met thoughtfully nudges the boy to safety as he’s straying from the curb into oncoming traffic. Adults sportingly extend their umbrellas so that the boy’s balloon doesn’t get drenched in a drizzle. When horse-mounted policemen file past, the last man, also the slowest, takes the time to look down and smile at both, boy and balloon.
After you’ve watched this movie, you may find yourself scouring the sky for your own floating balloon, one that you won’t need to cling to, because it’s yours forever.