A Year in Shorts Day 131: "The Red Balloon"
One great thing about the films we’ve covered in our Year in Shorts is how versatile they’ve been. We’ve looked at films across nine decades, of all genres, hailing from seventeen different countries. The films we’ve watched include wacky comedies, gripping dramas, wartime propaganda and experimental art pieces. Some have been great, some have been terrible, and an unfortunate amount of them have been just plain racist! But, with one exception, they have all had one thing in common- each and every one of them was nominated in one of the Academy’s short categories. (The only exception to this rule was Henry Browne, Farmer, which hardly counts; it was nominated for Best Documentary in its first year, when that category was open to features AND shorts). Well today’s film is another exception, and a pretty damn important one. Not only is The Red Balloon the only short film to win an Academy Award for screenwriting, it is also, I believe, the only short to win an Oscar outside of the short categories. (Again, excluding those early documentaries). And on top of all that, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen this one. So without further ado, let’s look at Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon.
The Red Balloon is another French film for The Great Oscar Baiter to put under its belt, this one coming to us from the year 1956. Despite this, it's also easily one of the most widely seen shorts we've talked about, especially in live action. For decades, The Red Balloon was a favorite film for teachers to show in classrooms, and as a result, generations of kids were raised with this film. But I didn't see The Red Balloon until I had graduated high school, so it must have fallen out of favor at some point. And it's not very hard to see why. Beneath the whimsical fantasy of a boy and his balloon, this film is bleak as hell. And frankly, it's not that far beneath!
At its heart, The Red Balloon is a fairly simple children's film- a lonely young boy (played by the director's son, Pascal Lamorrise) befriends a sentient balloon, which follows him through the streets of Paris. What follows is a series of comic vignettes as the boy tries to take his balloon with him wherever he goes, encountering all manner of people, some who take their friendship in stride, others who just don't understand them. Ain't that always the way? This being a European film, you can probably imagine things eventually take a turn for the depressing, but not so much that the film becomes miserable to watch.
While it's technically a foreign language film, The Red Balloon is mostly wordless, which certainly helps explain its appeal in classrooms across America. In many ways the film plays like a silent film, with the story easy enough to follow just by watching the actors. And The Red Balloon often employs that old-fashioned sense of humor one often sees in silent comedies, albeit with considerably more subtlety than that implies. What results is a very charming film that kids can easily understand and connect to, while also allowing adults to feel like a kid again.
As one of the most popular and beloved short films of all time, much has been written about this film, and I don't want to reiterate things that have been much better said elsewhere- The themes of innocence and cynicism, the striking contrast between the whimsical story and the bleak post-war landscape of Paris, or the... frankly odd review which decried the film as a heavy handed Christian allegory. (I didn't say all the criticism of the film was good). Like all great cinema, The Red Balloon has been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times, and I don't know what else I can add in that department.
Still, I do think it's worth singling out the quality of Lamorisse's direction, which is equally as impressive as his screenplay, and arguably as Oscar-worthy. Certainly more worthy of a nomination than Michael Anderson's work on Around the World in 80 Days. Working in tandem with cinematographer Edmond Séchan and editor Pierre Gillette, Lamorisse crafted a visually stunning film, utilizing the picaresque yet faded quality of his locations to produce some truly beautiful images. The phrase "every frame a painting" is one that often gets overused these days, but it is perhaps the only way I can accurately sum up how this film looks. It often feels more like you're watching an art installation come to life than you are a film.
Which is not to say the film is static; far from it. Séchan's camera is light and graceful (as befits a film about a balloon), often floating through the streets of Paris with an understated sense of energy. This is aided in no small part by the suitably whimsical score by Maurice Le Roux, which is catchy without being annoying and cute without be aggravating. And yet when the story takes a darker turn, the filmmaking shifts to match it. The alleys of Paris become shadowy and foreboding, and the sound mixing allows for the clacking of footsteps on cobblestone to echo loudly through the audience's ears. It's very good stuff, and a great way to introduce kids to quality filmmaking.
And yet, in spite of all I've said, I must admit that I do not love The Red Balloon. I am well aware that I'm risking whatever credibility I have by saying this, but whenever I watch this film I find myself appreciating it from a distance. It's a film I respect and like, but not one I love, and I'm not entirely sure why that is. Lord knows I have a high tolerance for French whimsy (Amelie is one of my favorite films after all), so it's not like I'm against what this film is doing. Perhaps it's just because I didn't grow up with it. Who can say?
Still, there are plenty of great films out there which I don't love, and there's no use in wasting time wondering why that is. The Red Balloon is a lovely short, and it's really no surprise that the Academy decided to award it with the unprecedented honor of an Oscar for its screenplay. Why they didn't decide to nominate in for Best Live Action short, on the other hand, remains a mystery.
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"The Red Balloon" is available to watch on HBO Max.
Technically at this time in the Academy's history, there were actually two categories for Live Action Short Subjects- One-Reel and Two-Reel. This film would definitely qualify under Two Reel, and when was the last time you heard anyone talk about that year's winner, "The Bespoke Overcoat"?
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