When Judge Dylan Thomas was a boy, a lazy hot water bottle was a poor substitute for a whimsical, lively red balloon.
Or Le Ballon Rouge.
Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon perhaps needs no introduction. In all probability, you have already seen this film. My parents told me that they saw The Red Balloon no less than three hundred times (each), since their school system showed it every year. Even if you haven't seen it, the title hardly leaves it a mystery. There is a balloon and it is red. There's also a boy (Pascal Lamorisse, the director's son) who finds the balloon, and they pal around a bit before trouble strikes.
There are few movies that are as spare as this one (except for, perhaps, Paddle to the Sea). Every second of the 34 minutes is used and there's no unscrupulous use of dialogue or scenery to fritter away the time. Everything there serves the story, with nothing to get in the way.
The story requires this deft touch. There's a great deal of whimsy here, with a tiny bit of magic. The balloon is potentially alive—or it's not, and we're just witness to a young boy's imagination. Either way, Lamorisse handles it with such lightness of touch that the audience is never overwhelmed, never stupefied by needlessly gaudy effects; it's just a red balloon with a life all its own and its boy.
Lots of little touches add more dimensions to what seems to be a simple story. Pascal is almost always dressed in the same drab gray set of clothes, unlike his school friends who are dressed brightly and cheerfully. The red balloon is the only color Pascal is allowed. The red balloon also plays little games, such as when it darts around the schoolmaster's head, teasing and taunting him. In fact, it's a wonder how much personality Laromisse is able to imbue in that simple red balloon.
Criterion has committed the same sin that it committed with Paddle to the Sea, which I also screened recently. Where are the extras? Where is the usual attention to all those lovely commentaries and histories and interviews? I'm hurt, Criterion, and my heart is broken. I shan't ever forgive you for these transgressions. Look, tears down my cheeks roll and the sad, sad song you hear is from my soul. And now I'm rhyming.
The Red Balloon managed to make me smile and even got my dad to laugh, even though he has seen the movie far more than once. It's a bit of magical whimsy that has well stood the test of time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Janus Films
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