Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Red Balloon

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Red Balloon

My earliest memory is of my third birthday in 1986. I don't remember holding the balloon, or even particularly the moment when it slipped out my grasp and danced away. But I distinctly remember standing in the driveway, bursting into tears as I watched it disappear further and further into the sky, higher and higher until it was just a little dot and then nothing at all. I've never forgotten it, and so moments in The Red Balloon when the playful crimson sprite appears especially fragile or evasive resonate with me, as I suspect they do for all ex-kids who had similar experiences. Balloons are lighter than air, colorful, and - given the proper gust of wind - remarkably ebullient, yet some of these same qualities make them the most mortal of childhood playthings. As such, the balloon, red or otherwise, is an inherently tragic, poignant figure, and an obvious metaphor for the loss of childhood innocence.


I'd seen The Red Balloon when I was young; as it was for so many others, this was my first French movie. And it is distinctively, if not French, than postwar European. The children play in wartime rubble and there is an atmosphere of bleak, dull grey which the bright, playful balloon breaks up nicely. At first it's simply a startling, but everyday, apparition, which the little boy shimmies up a lightpost to steal. Eventually it becomes clear that there's something magical about the object - when it slips out of the boy's grasp, it hovers over him and follows him around - much unlike my own traumatizing plaything (the special effects are effortlessly convincing, and I for one don't really want to know how they were achieved).

The boy and his balloon explore Paris, and if someone hasn't written about the balloon as an unintended metaphor for the upcoming French New Wave, which would disrupt the solemnity of postwar French cinema with its gleeful, cinematic, anarchic free spirit...well, they should get to it already. The Red Balloon won all sorts of awards after its 1956 premiere, but it isn't especially complicated storytelling (despite some clever bits), nor is it virtuoso filmmaking (save the aforementioned visual trickery). Instead it is a brilliant premise, executed with charm and panache and lightness, brought to an extremely memorable and poignant conclusion. The latter fact is what assures its reputation, hard as it is to take.

The demise of the red balloon remains one of the great tragic moments in children's cinema, certainly up there with Bambi's mother. Taken to a Menilmontant Golgotha, stoned by the heathens who can't share in the innocent joy of our pint-size protagonist, the balloon is killed slowly and painfully. My memory contained the image of a popping red burst, a cruel but mercifully quick execution. I was wrong. Instead we see a rock graze the red balloon, and then the soundtrack gets quiet and we watch, thinking with relief that the little bully missed his target. Then, slowly, we start to realize that it's getting smaller and wrinkles are emerging on its surface. It sinks, swirling helplessly, with increasing languor until it fully descends, a parched little lumpy ball shivering on the grass. Only then does a little cretin's shoe stomp on it, finishing the job when the agony is almost complete. Aside from all else, this can stand beside Sonny Corleone, Bonnie and Clyde, and Gibson's Jesus as the most painfully drawn-out execution in the movies.

As a boy raised on action movies, I of course hoped for redemptive violence. This urge was satiated only later, by the satirical animated series "The Critic" (which featured Jon Lovitz's vocal stylings as a sardonic movie reviewer). The critic screens a brand-new sequel to the beloved children's classic, entitled The Revenge of the Red Balloon. You can imagine (I recall a balloon hovering outside a man's window - obviously, he's the bully grown into paranoid adulthood - and then smashing itself through the plate glass to attack the villain in his bed). But The Red Balloon derives from a more innocent era (at least as far as children's entertainment was concerned) and instead of revenge we get transcendence. A bevy of balloons, spontaneously jerked from children's hands around the city, descends upon the brokenhearted boy and as he gathers the strings in his hand, they lift him into the sky, above the grey metropolis and the scrawny tormenters and the stiff, gesticulating authority figures.

But even as he floats up there, free of earthly tangles, his childhood wonder redeemed, melancholy worries linger. As former children who were terrified by the sound of a balloon exploding or the image of one drifting away - or perhaps even more, as adults who recognize this sense of loss and helplessness for what it really is, less about balloons than ourselves - we stand by nervously, and wonder. What happens when the balloons pop?

13 comments:

Daniel Getahun said...

I love your last line, and wow, I really need to see this AND the recent "sequel"(?) - would you recommend it?

MovieMan0283 said...

By "sequel" do you mean The Critic clip (which, unfortunately, is not available on You Tube) or "The Flight of the Red Balloon"? I haven't seen the latter, but while it's on many critics' (and bloggers') top ten lists, my folks saw it and despised it, for whatever that's worth (they thought it was extremely boring and found the main character despicable).

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

This is a beautifully rendered piece, expertly juxtaposing the measured innocence of the film with your own childhood experience (interesting how some films are able to tap into that frozen well of memory so hauntingly, isn't it?).

All I can say is... "The red balloon is about to become the DEAD balloon..."


"...I could not have foreseen that."

Tony D'Ambra said...

A wistful heart-felt piece.

I am reminded of The Kite Flyer, where the imagery of the soaring majestic kite is perhaps a more active celebration of the child's unftettered engagement with reality.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Oops... The Kite Runner

MovieMan0283 said...

Jon,

I think you'd like "The Critic" piece...wish I could find it online.

Tony,

What did you think of the film (I didn't read the book)? I found it largely mediocre but with some powerful sequences.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Hey Movieman:

I'm a "The Critic" devotee (got the dvd set 'round here somewheres) and the "Red Balloon" sequel might be the most brilliant three minutes the show ever produced (the segments with Orson Welles selling fish sticks come pretty close). The quotes from my last comment were from "The Critic".

Strange, youtube has a lot of clips but not that one...

MovieMan0283 said...

I suggest you rectify that problem, Jon. With extreme prejudice.

I couldn't remember exactly how the revenge unfolds. Was it as I described it?

Sam Juliano said...

Wow Movie Man, you are just a toddler! Tony and I have passed our 50th and are moving foward. (or shall I say backward?)

Well I first saw this film in my first undergraduate film course in 1975, and it's an incomparable experience that immediately launched an obsessive love for this film to this very day. In fact I show the film before Easter every year for my middle-schoolers, perhaps to provide a point of reference for its celebrated 'resurrection' subtext, but I have shown it to my own five kids on a number of occasions. The ravishing color (particularly rouge) the location cinematography by Edmond Sechan and of course Maurice La Roux's gorgeous score elevate this short to a cinematic epiphany--perfect fusion of image and sound, and a statement of euphoria that's never been equalled on the screen.

Your review here and your personal revelations?

Magnificent. I salute you. Of many excellent passages, I cite this:

"The demise of the red balloon remains one of the great tragic moments in children's cinema, certainly up there with Bambi's mother. Taken to a Menilmontant Golgotha, stoned by the heathens who can't share in the innocent joy of our pint-size protagonist, the balloon is killed slowly and painfully. My memory contained the image of a popping red burst, a cruel but mercifully quick execution. I was wrong. Instead we see a rock graze the red balloon, and then the soundtrack gets quiet and we watch, thinking with relief that the little bully missed his target. Then, slowly, we start to realize that it's getting smaller that wrinkles are emerging on its surface. It sinks, swirling helplessly, with increasing languor until it fully descends, a parched little lumpy ball shivering on the grass. Only then does a little cretin's shoe stomp on it, finishing the job when the agony is almost complete. Aside from all else, this can stand beside Sonny Corleone, Bonnie and Clyde, and Gibson's Jesus as the most painfully drawn-out execution in the movies."

You are a gifted fellow, Movie Man. And today you've made me smile with a stellar assessment of one of the true joys of my moviegoing life.

Sam Juliano said...

I agree with you Movie Man on THE KITE RUNNER....pretty weak film despite some strong individual moments.

bazarov@gmail.com said...

I found The Kite Runner weak after the kids grow up, but the scenes of the kids with the kites lyrical and exciting.

MovieMan0283 said...

Sam & bazarov, yes the direction was rather limp. Also, the CGI of the kite-flying scenes bothered me a little bit. Truthfully, even more powerful than the childhood scene was the stoning sequence - at the screening I was at, someone walked out because they found it too hard to take.

And now we're thinking about negotiating with/backing off from the Taliban? (Isn't it bad enough that we're already in bed with the Saudi scum?) But I digress...

Sam,

Glad the post touched a chord with you. The DVD I now own says that The Red Balloon was never available on video before, but I distinctly remember borrowing a copy from my town library. Perhaps it was a bootleg.

Sam Juliano said...

Movie Man:

THE RED BALLOON was available on laserdisc from Criterion since about 1990. I owned it! LOL! And the quality was nearly as gorgeous as the present DVD. It was of course also available on VHS since the late 80's, so the disclaimer you read is in serious error. Perhaps they should have said "DVD for the first time." You did not borrow a bootie, but a legit VHS.