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Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Red Balloon (1956)

I've waited a huge amount of time for this one, strangely because it found a unprecedented audience at the time due to its repeated showings in schools, but finally TCM are showing it. It's a film that fits into a category all of its own, not least for what it won given what it is. It runs only 34 minutes, has almost no dialogue and stars the director's six year old son (and daughter) and the huge red balloon of the title. Very few words are spoken, yet it won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for writer/director Albert Lamorisse. It remains the only short to ever win anything outside the dedicated categories for short films. It won at Cannes, taking home a Golden Palm for Best Short Film. What's more, it captured the hearts of the world and is still referenced today as a thing of joy.

There's really very little story. Little Pascal finds a red balloon, a huge thing that with its string is about as tall as he is, and he runs around Paris with it, seeing what can be seen. It's like a friend, making this a buddy movie, and he protects his friend by sheltering it from the rain under peoples' umbrellas. When he gets home, and it gets thrown out of the window, it refuses to go away. He brings it back inside but lets it loose in the morning with the words that it should do as he commands, only to find that it apparently does. To others and to us it might seem like it has a mind of its own: it follows him, it waits for him, it even plays tricks on him and it keeps out of the reach of anyone else, including bullies.

It really is a textbook example of how to do a lot with very little. Beyond the sparse dialogue, the balloon really can't do anything except move but it generates such emotion because of what it does and what we perceive as why that I can't help but assume that John Lasseter was paying serious attention. It does precisely what he continually does with his Pixar animations, especially the shorts like Luxo Jr that anthropomorphise unexpected objects like lamps without the benefit of giving them voices.

What I've heard does hold true: this holds more delight in its 34 minutes than most films ten times its length. It isn't just joy, it's joy and pain and joy, just like a human life. We share with Pascal and his friend a whole host of emotions, not just joy at finding his friend, the red balloon, but loss and frustration as it's stolen away and killed. Its slow death is tortuous. But there's a happy ending in store for Pascal and for we the viewers. What a piece of cinematic magic, aided by the music of Maurice Le Roux, the innocence of the actors and the contrast apparent in the setting: the drab slums of the Ménilmontant district of Paris. What it's really alluding to is open to question. Capitalism? Christianity? Maybe. But whatever else it's about it's about the friendship, freedom and cinematic magic.

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