Director: Albert Lamorisse
By Marilyn Ferdinand
We all tend to hold dear the images and experiences of our childhood. For people in their 20s, The Little Mermaid and Scooby Doo may be the beloved images of youth. For people who were young in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, The Red Balloon is sacred ground. The Red Balloon won just about every award for which it was eligible and played in movie theatres around the world. So popular was this magical story of a boy and his balloon that a chain of Red Balloon coffee houses opened. I remember driving past the restaurant with my parents and gazing fondly at the bronze, lifesize replica of the little boy at the top of a Parisian-style light pole reaching for the string of the painted-red balloon.
Like many of the other markers of my youth, the restaurant is gone, and the movie has faded from memory. But now in its 50th year of existence, Janus Films has begun touring The Red Balloon and White Mane, an earlier children’s film by the same director, on the arthouse circuit. The timing not only coincides with the Janus anniversary, but also capitalizes on the recent release of respected Chinese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon. The childish thrill I experienced when I heard the song over the opening credits of The Red Balloon was an unexpected joy.
The film opens with a gorgeous view of a neighborhood in a hilly part of Paris, its grey cobblestone streets and stairways ghostly in a morning mist. Then, our boy (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) comes into the scene. The camera stays at his eye level as we watch him descend a few stairs and walk up a wall while holding onto a light pole. When he reaches the top, we see what he is after—a large, very round, red balloon. He has to grip the string in his mouth to descend the pole. Once safely on the ground, he grips the string and goes off to school.
The streetcar conductor won’t let him on with the balloon. Rather than let go, he runs all the way to school. He hurries through the door. A few moments later, he hurries back out. He finds an old man on the street and tells him to hold onto the balloon (“and don’t let go”) until he comes out. Miraculously, the man complies. When the boy gets home to his grandmother, we watch up at their apartment window as she opens the shutters and tosses the balloon out. But the balloon has picked the boy to be his friend, and it floats outside the window waiting for the boy to retrieve it.
The boy and the balloon are inseparable. It harasses a teacher who locks the boy up and follows a blue balloon a little girl is holding; the two balloons play and check each other out like a pair of pet dogs. It’s amazing how much personality an object can convey under the skillful direction of Lamorisse and the matter-of-fact acceptance of his son as the balloon’s friend. When the balloon finally is separated from the boy by an envious pack of boys from his school, all the balloons in Paris rush to his side to convey him to a place where he and the red balloon can be reunited. It’s a very special moment, and one of the most beautiful scenes ever captured on film.
White Mane is a new film to me, but this story of a wild and proud horse is a beautiful, somber, and sad affair that I would have loved as the dramatic, morbid child I was. (I asked my teacher to read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” to my second-grade class, and she was appalled by the death at the end.) Unfortunately, American parents of yesteryear pretended childhood was nothing but fun and games, and I doubt the film ever played in the States. To today’s parents who are overly paranoid about exposing their children to anything that might harm them—like reality—I issue the caution that this film is intense and violent.
The story takes place in the Camargue, a marshy region south of Arles in France known for its herd of small, wild horses. White Mane, the narrator (Peter Strauss) tells us, is the leader of his herd. He is sought by some gauchos who wish to tame him. They chase him over the dunes and lead him to a pen, where they try to break him. However, he escapes. They try again, setting fire to the marsh to flush him out, but he attacks their leader’s horse, which throws the man to the ground. “Whoever wants him can have him,” says the man in disgust. Young Folco (Alain Emery), a fisherman, overhears this remark and decides to make White Mane his. The horse takes a liking to him, and agrees to come back to his home, where Folco and his young brother (a very cute Pascal Lamorisse) live with their grandfather and a menagerie that includes one of the Camargue’s famed flamingos.
White Mane is happy with Folco, but when the gauchos drive his herd toward their ranch, he gives chase and ends up in a pen with another male from the wild herd that has taken his place as leader. He and White Mane fight for dominance of the herd. The battle of these two males is very intense, lengthy, and violent—nothing staged about it. White Mane is driven out and returns to Folco, who tends his wounds.
Of course, the proud men are not about to give up so quickly. They decide to humble White Mane, but Folco takes off, riding him to the river. The two plunge into the water and are swept to sea, where the narrator relates that they are going to a place where men and horses live always as friends.
The sad ending of White Mane rings true, coming from a man who had lived through the Nazi occupation of France and who made this film for children who had survived the war and were still dealing with its aftermath. The Red Balloon touches on the same theme by pitting envious, warring boys armed with slingshots against their smaller classmate and his defenseless, but brave, balloon. Although White Mane evokes the emotion of wartime Europe, reminders of the war are all around in the much more gentle The Red Balloon. Looking at the rubble the boy walks through, it’s not surprising that Lamorisse would want to evoke a bit of magic to take him away. In the end, the boy also leaves the world to go to a place where boys and their balloons can live unmolested. If you want to call these films a plea for peace—or even religious parables—you wouldn’t be far off. If you’re afraid your kids can’t handle them, ask them if they think life is just fun and games. They might surprise you. l