Monday, 7 June 2010

The Red Balloon

New Wave sprint

I watched Albert Lamorisse’s classic 1956 short film The Red Balloon the other night, and found it was as wonderful as childhood memories recalled. The Technicolor cinematography is gorgeous, with the balloon itself appearing redder than red, a hyperreal irruption of shiny, primary brightness into the muted, rain-grey world of the Montmartre streets in which the story takes place. Lamorisse seems to deliberately seek out the most grey areas of town, and even dresses the boy all in grey, as if to make the Technicolor splash of the balloon stand out even more. A good deal of the film is of a gently observational nature, with the small boy who is our protagonist, played by the director’s son Pascal Lamorisse, wandering around the cobbled streets and climbing the steep steps of the old town, accompanied by the bobbing, cherubically round form of his new floating friend. This gives ample to observe the life of the Parisian streets of the late 50s, its people, its shops, its cars (not many) and its open backed buses. The fact that it was shot on location on the streets of Paris, with life carrying on as normal all around, puts it very much in line with the films of the French New Wave which were just hitting their stride at this time, although Lamorisse is never counted as being amongst their number, or even as a marginally connected figure. Perhaps the film’s blending of everyday life with the fairytale put it at a remove from the predominantly realist leanings of the New Wave auteurs, with their preference for the generic forms of Hollywood. It may also have been consigned to the ghetto of the children’s film, in much the same way as children’s literature tended to register below the critical radar in the days before Potter and Pullman. It possibly more akin to the Louis Malle’s Paris-set romp Zazie Dans le Metro, although it doesn’t have that film’s self-conscious zaniness and relentlessly madcap pace, settling into a more relaxed rhythm. With its lack of any but the most cursory dialogue and emphasis on visual storytelling, it also resembles the films of Jacques Tati. The scene in which the camera keeps pace in front of the boy as he runs pell-mell along the street, the balloon caroming along behind him causing startled passersby to look askance, is archetypally New Wave in style, however. It comes two or three years before Truffaut’s famous sequence in which Jeanne Moreau races Oskar Werner and Henri Serre across the railway bridge in Jules et Jim. And Lamorisse manages to keep the camera a good deal steadier.

Parisian roofscape with boy and cat
The film opens with the boy approaching the precipitous descent of one of the set of steps which take you down from the crest of Montmartre, and we are thus offered the classic view over the Parisian roofscape which these heights afford. The balloon is discovered entangled with a lamp-post, as if it has been lured down from the sky by the beacon of its light, and the boy climbs half up the post, half up the wall to free it and carry it down to earth in his teeth. The balloon itself is imbued with a very human personality, a difficult feat of characterisation given its lack of any features. But it is somehow conveyed through its movements, in combination with the music of Maurice Leroux (who would go on to score Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Petit Soldat), which imply an initial hesitancy and shyness, and a playfulness and cheeky sense of rebellion and non-conformity. It provides the kind of blank surface, shiny and reflective, upon which any number of symbolic interpretations could by imprinted. I tend to see it as representing the boy’s untamed imagination, bright, vivid and paint-fresh; as yet unsullied by the compromises and conformities society demands.

A grey place to come home to
This is a film of exteriors, of the freedom found wandering the streets of the city and finding your own pathways through it. Whenever the boy does go inside, the balloon acts to disrupt or alleviate his confinement. We are given a glimpse of the arid and joyless atmosphere of his home life when the balloon follows him inside to the apartment where his parents live, and is shortly thereafter ejected from the window by his grim-faced mother. The boy later opens the window to allow it to sneak back in, the balloon somehow managing to look furtive, as if it is glancing over a non-existent shoulder. The father, briefly glimpsed as the headmaster collars him as he leaves his respectable-looking job to discuss his son’s behaviour, seems merely indifferent. The balloon disrupts a class at the school which the boy attends, causing eruptions of laughter from the children (we never actually see any of the interiors which the boy or the balloon enter). It follows the headmaster who has detained the boy in his study after school on account of the unruly behaviour for which he is held responsible, distracting and harassing him and generally causing people to point and comment, until he returns to release his friend. The balloon also follows the boy in the church into which he is led, dressed up in his smart jacket, on Sunday, causing evident turmoil inside before both run back outside and escape to a neighbouring patch of rough grass (which appears to have its own makeshift shrine). The music rises to an uplifting swell at this point, and there is a beautifully composed shot of boy and balloon against the backdrop of city and spire. This small area of open wasteground provides a tiny corner of grubby pastoral within the urban wind of narrow streets and apartment buildings.

Urban pastoral
The boy, with the help of his buoyant companion, has escaped from the constricting confines of The Church, with its attendant concern with respectability and conformity (there seems to be some pompous doorman uniformed in Napoleonic garb in attendance at the door of this cathedral), but the scene here gives a sense of a more unfettered religiosity; one which enjoys the freedom of the open skies to which the cathedral’s spire points. So the balloon could also be seen in a religious light, as an externalisation of the boy’s soul, shining with the innocent brightness of the Lamb. When it is caught by the gang of thuggish boys, it is dragged up the hill along cobbled streets in what amounts to a Via Dolorosa (one boy at the rear hitting it with a stick). It is taken to a patch of lifeless, brick-strewn wasteground beyond a wall, a space which seems to exist outside of the city (without a city wall). Here it is tethered and pelted with stones, the faces of the boys who carry out this scourging leering with a mocking hatred, like those in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings of The Crowning With Thorns and Christ Bearing The Cross. After the boy briefly rescues it, the balloon is taken back to this Parisian Golgotha, where it is once more pelted and stoned until its brightness fades and its skin blisters, its living rotundity slowly deflating until one of the boys stamps on it with a boot of Orwellian brutality. The red has become the colour of blood and sacrifice, of the Sacred Heart. Finally, of course, there is The Ascension, a rebirth and renewal in which life reasserts its vibrancy tenfold.

Via Dolorosa
The final scenes are uplifting in a literal, emotional and symbolic sense, and have not been cheapened in the least by their appropriation for several recent advertisements. I wonder whether Harlan Ellison had this finale in mind when he wrote the scene in his classic short story ‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ in which the Harlequin releases a hailstorm of multi-coloured jellybeans onto the heads of the workers in his obsessively timetabled and conformist city of the future. The sheer outpouring of bright colour which overwhelms the city, bursting from from every rooftop, and around every street corner, creates a feeling of joyous release after the scenes of mean-spirited violence (and it’s a mark of the skill with which the film creates its own world that the deflation and bursting of a balloon is so harrowing and upsetting). It’s a transformative explosion of imagination and unbounded spirit, a defiant assertion of the vividness and burgeoning multiplicity of the life force in the face of the sullen and aggressively marshalled conformity of the gang, whose members are destined to compliantly take their place in the regimented and institutionalised world which the balloon carries the boy above.

The Ascension
The Red Balloon, with its relatively slow-paced depiction of Parisian street life, would make an interesting double bill with Claude Lelouch’s 1976 short C’Etait Un Rendezvous, which explores the city’s byways at a much more breakneck speed than the gentle perambulations of boy and balloon. This 9 minute, single take film is essentially achieved through Lelouch fixing a new type of camera he’d got his hands on to the front of his car. He then races through the early morning streets of Paris, which mercifully are relatively empty, going appreciably above the speed limits, and reaching the heights of Montmartre just before the film in the camera runs out (it was capable of 10 minute takes), where he meets a beautiful woman who rushes over to embrace him on the steps in front of the Sacre Coeur. Those crazy French peoples.

Shoreline Western
The DVD of The Red Balloon is paired with an earlier Lamorisse black and white short from 1954, White Mane (or Crin Blanc: Le Cheval Sauvage). This is a blend of Western and fable set in the Camargue region of South France (a Southern then?) where the plains meet the sea. This makes it a curious sort of Western, since few examples of that particularly American genre ever make it to the ocean. The Western elements are embodied by the French equivalent of cowboys (who look more like Spanish gauchos in their flat brimmed and crowned hats) who round up the wild horses who roam the plane. The leader of this group of rancheros is obsessed with the idea of capturing and taming the wildest of the herd of horses, known as White Mane. There is much footage of the horses and the attempted capture and corralling of the stallion, which has the air of lightly fictionalised documentary. The story proper, which once more has a fairy tale air, concerns a young fisherboy, who lives with his Monet-bearded father (or possibly grandfather) and his baby sister in a hut by a marshy inlet of the sea. Having witnessed its capture and cheered at its subsequent escape, he befriends White Mane and attempts to ride him away from the relentless attempts of the posse of riders to catch him again and once more place him in captivity. The horse is a more fierce embodiment of the freedom of the spirit than the red balloon, and has the instinct of the wild creature to kick and bite and fight in order to preserve that freedom. This is what attracts the young boy to it, what makes him willing to be dragged through marshland and over mudflat in order to get close to such a spirit. The final fairytale scene is a beautifully poetic actualisation of the figurative image of the breakers of ocean waves as white mares, as boy and horse ride off into the horizon, which follows the line of sea and sky.
Merman and Sea Horse

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