3. The Red Balloon (1956),
directed by Albert Lamorisse

3. The Red Balloon (1956),
directed by Albert Lamorisse

One of Cinema’s Most Endearing Short Films Maintains Its Sense of Wonder


The Red Balloon is small yet dazzling, a true cinematic gem. With its basic story, use of easy symbolism and vividly contrasting colour palette, it combines a childlike capacity for amazement with the straightforward understanding of how enchanting the world can be. A simple but undeniably stirring picture.

Rating: 9.5/11


When you’re young, it seems that amazing things happen to you almost everyday. It’s not because we, as children, are necessarily more fortunate; it’s just that the world has yet to wear upon us. Ordinary things are magical because we haven’t become conditioned to them, and nothing is impossible because the limits of possibility are not the concern of children. The world opens for us as a swirl of colours, lights and music. Bunnies hide chocolate eggs, fat men from the Arctic bring us presents and sacks of air called balloons dance on strings for our amusement.

This is, honestly, perhaps a deeper train of thought than necessary for a movie as briskly splendid as Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (or Le Ballon Rouge in the original French). But they’re the sorts of notions this film evokes, though purely on an emotional level. It’s a story so simple and brief (35 minutes, in total), told with such tenderness and warmth that a three-year-old could follow it. At the same time, it has enough substance and merit to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

A young Parisian boy (Pascal, Lamorisse’s son) spies a red balloon tied to a lamppost. He frees it and carries it with him for the remainder of the film, as others try to take it away or burst it. That… that’s it. Well, of course, there’s more to it than that. This balloon – spurred on by invisible strings and wires – seems to have a life and will of its own. Initially, Pascal pulls it along behind him and, when he needs to attend class, leaves it in the care of a custodian. But when he arrives home and his mother throws the balloon out the window, it simply hovers outside and waits there for Pascal to retrieve it. Clearly, it has an innate desire to stick with this boy.

Pascal beckoning his friend to come back. (Lopert Pictures)

You can ascribe any number of traits and symbolic meaning to this balloon. This garish red orb, spinning and dancing against the drab, grey backdrop of Paris’ Belleville area, conveys an energy and thrill that is lacking in its surroundings. So maybe it represents youth in an ageing world, or even hope and aspiration railing against a system of rigid, dreary conformity. When his mother and teachers try to separate Pascal from his balloon, are they lashing out in jealousy over his sprightliness or simply wanting to disabuse the boy of his childish whims?

It could be all of this, and none of it, or something buried in between. Without getting too mired down in historical context, it’s worth noting that this film premiered a little over a decade after the end of WWII. A city like Paris, besieged as it was during the war, was still in the throes of the Post-Occupation doldrums. Lamorisse, it seems, wanted to offer something of a mini-revitalisation for the city, a short, sweet tale of small wonders. He wanted to invite beauty back into his home, however briefly, and remind people of the power it can have, even if only for one little boy in a city of thousands.

Once again, though, The Red Balloon doesn’t need fervent analysis to be enjoyed. It offers an easy story, refuses to pin a reason or moral on it and hopes its charms will be enough to carry it. It succeeds, tremendously. There are so many little moments of quiet ingenuity in this film. Early on in the film, it begins to rain as Pascal leaves school with his balloon. To protect them both, he enlists the help of kind strangers, who allow him to walk with his floating balloon propping up their umbrellas. Later, when Pascal is told he can’t bring the balloon with him onto a bus, he lets it go. It floats straight up out of frame and seems to vanish, until the bus is shown speeding down the Parisian streets with the balloon following after it.

Pascal and his balloon, learning from the kindness of strangers. (Lopert Pictures)

There’s a frankness and sincerity to these scenes that helps them avoid soppiness. It may be silly, perhaps, but it’s hard not to grin at a balloon that follows its owner around as if it were his best friend. Likewise, it’s hard to scoff at a young boy who simply wants to hold onto this balloon – and, by extension, his childhood – for as long as possible. The balloon, of course, sometimes has other ideas.

There’s a scene (embedded above) where Pascal walks by a young girl in the street with a blue balloon. First, Pascal’s red balloon starts following hers and then, seconds later, the blue balloon starts following the read one, causing a cute, awkward interaction between Pascal and the girl. There a multitudes contained in a simple scene such as this, from the desire for understanding to the base reactions that sometimes ignite within us when meeting others. These kids don’t know it yet, but their balloons do: there are certain people you’re just meant to be around.

Que sera, sera. (Lopert Pictures)

In making this short, Lamorisse demonstrates a deep empathy for a child-like state of mind, and an unnatural ability to conjure that mentality and project it onto an audience. Indeed, as the director of this movie and creator of the strategy board game Risk, Lamorisse exhibits an astute understanding of what engages the parts of our brains that look for fun and wholesome pleasure in the everyday. Risk does so intellectually, while The Read Balloon plays the emotional counterpart.

It’s ironic that, in such a little film, there’s so much to unpack. I haven’t even told you about the wonderful score, which swells and twinkles like a music box conducting an orchestra. Nor have I mentioned the tension that follows in later scenes, when several of Pascal’s schoolmates chase him and the balloon around the city, or the triumphant beauty of the film’s final minutes. But I’ll leave you with this: The Red Balloon is an emotional time capsule, reminding you of a time when your surroundings didn’t function in order to propel you towards personal gain. When you were young, if something amused or pleased you, that became your pursuit for the day. You’d have nothing to show for it in the end but your own fulfillment. Few films have this power; cherish it.


The Red Balloon can be streamed in full on SBS on Demand.

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