I believe that for children fortunate enough not to experience the death of a loved one at an impressionable age, balloons are their first taste of mortality. Precious, present, and ever moving, a child sees a possessed balloon as a simple yet affectionate life form, a pet. The unique fragility of a balloon as a child’s play thing, as well as its dramatic transformation between life and death, stirs a very strong reaction in any child. It either explodes with a jarring pop, falls upwards, still plainly in view as it goes further and further away from your safe hands, or gradually deflates into a small sack of wrinkled rubber. I distinctly remember getting a balloon at a fair at the age of four or five, watching it roll around the ceiling of the car all the way home only for it to slip out in the sudden vacuum of the car door opening and float steadily up into the atmosphere. I wouldn’t feel the same sudden, stupefying shock for years. You can potentially keep a favorite toy for your entirely life, but a balloon is always a brief and tragic affair for a young child.
This feeling of mortality and the cruelty of life is present among the carefree magic and imagination of Albert Lamorisse’s Le Ballon rouge. A boy encounters a red balloon in the bleak streets of Paris. It begins to follow him with its own will and, with mute persistence, becomes his only true companion. The short film, with minimal dialogue and a fanciful, simple plot, was a critical smash both in Europe and the United States, becoming and remaining to this day the only non-feature film to win an Academy Award for Best Writing. Lamorrisse also created the original version of the board game Risk, which proves that simple imaginative concepts generating cruelty, alienation, and pain are, in fact, a theme for him.
The film dates back to the early years of Technicolor, some close up shots still have the tell tale shudder of early color treatments, and contrast is used to great effect. The crumbling Parisian district of Beville was the primary shooting location for the film and the decaying grey and brown of the filthy streets make the balloon appear so out of place that it looks completely disconnected from the physical space of the film. It is a perfect geometric being in a broken world of rubble, cobblestone and irregularity. Like the Toons in Who Frame Roger Rabbit, the solid, vibrant red of the balloon defies the detailed earth tones of its environment, and if not for the constant, very natural bobbing and swaying in the wind it could easily be mistaken for a post production, animated effect. The significance of the boy’s magical friend is only increased by its total displacement from his dreary universe.
One of the reasons why the Red Balloon is so appealing as a film meant for children is in the simplicity of its characters motives, or lack thereof. There are no indicators as to why the boy is so alienated from any potential friends or family. There is no indication as to the absence of a father character. Likewise, there is no indication as to why the bullies seek out to destroy the balloon besides sheer greed and jealousy. These are not means to dehumanize the characters in the Red Balloon’s universe, but instead present the world through the eyes of a child who does not have the years of experience to understand or care about context. The boy is a alone simply because no one else is around that cares about him. The bullies want to claim and/or destroy the balloon simply because they are mean. The plain, bare tone in which the narrative plays connects with the wide-eyed child in every moviegoer that remembers deep down somewhere in themselves a time when the world was only a surface of new experience that barely began to make sense.
This simplicity makes all of the emotions as poignant and powerful as a young child discovering them for the first time. With little manipulative directing, I felt the full range of emotions simply from the association I felt for the protagonist. Like a smiley face made of two dots, a line, and a circle, the bare simplicity of the story allows for the viewer to fill-in-the-blanks rather than find a connection with an already, fully established face or plot.
Of all the scenes that stuck with me however is the death of the red balloon. A small leak forms in its surface after a well aimed sling shot bullet strikes against its side. Then, in a slow, steady, silent shot, we watch as the balloon gradually settles to the ground and begins to deflate, its skin cracks and forms into red scales as the taught elastic surface forms wrinkles. Then, with a cold brutality, a child stomps the remaining air out of it in a sadistic coup de grace. Leaving the protagonist stunned and alone. He may have felt hardship and suffering before in his short life, but nothing like this. If not for the triumphant, literally soaring meeting of the balloons soon after this movie would be notorious for its shocking depiction of a piece of rubber dying before its only friend’s eyes.
There has been a lot of discussion as to the symbolic significance of the final scene of karmic reward for the protagonist, and for the red balloon in general. Some seeing it as materialistic wealth, others as the Christian faith, with his final flight as an ascension into heaven. In this case, however, I don’t want to see this as a film with socio-political, or even spiritual subtext, as that would cheapen the broad appeal of it. The balloon’s death is the boy’s first taste of grief, and the meeting of the other sentient balloons patrolling that particular Parisian precinct is likeminded loved ones convening on a suffering fellow human being, and rather than put the relationship between the boy and the red balloon on a pedestal, they move on with life and all of its experiences, perhaps a little wounded, but wiser for it. Their is only joy in the face of the child because although one balloon has passed, life will have more balloons and all he can do is honor it by ballooning around some more.
In a truly morbid example of life imitating art, Albert Lamorisse died in a helicopter crash while filming a documentary about Iran called the Lover’s Wind. It is appropriate then that his family would not avoid the tragedy of his death, but honor him in his death, both in leaving the crash itself where it landed as a memorial for him, as well as completing the film as close to as he intended as possible over the course of many years. Tragedy and death are very real parts of life, and it is only in progressing with full acknowledgement of loss that we can progress.