Childhood Memories: Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon & White Mane

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The life and works of Albert Lamorisse were both cut tragically short following a fatal helicopter crash during the filming of his documentary The Lover’s Wind in 1970. It was his short film work of the 1950s (not to mention his creation of the board game Risk in 1957) – in particular The Red Balloon and White Mane – that captured the world’s imagination through the eyes of its children.

The Red Balloon is as timeless as a fairytale. Young Pascal (Lamorisse’s son of the same name) discovers a large red balloon on his walk to school. Plucking it from a lamppost, it quickly becomes his pet, following him down the street on his way to school and waiting patiently outside his family’s balcony during dinnertime. The neighbourhood ruffians (easy to spot because they all wear shorts – Pascal’s always sporting the same grey trousers) want the balloon as target practice, and chase them through the winding streets of Paris.

With one of cinema’s most magical finale sequences, The Red Balloon alone cements Lamorisse’s standing as a filmmaker with a nearly faultless touch (as a bizarre side-note, besides taking home the 1956 Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Red Balloon also received the 1957 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, despite its near-absence of spoken dialogue and 34-minute running time).

The only other time I’ve seen The Red Balloon was at West Dover Elementary School in the early 1980s during our rare lunchtime movie days in the gymnasium. We ate McDonald’s cheeseburgers and “orange drink” and laughed as Pascal’s balloon trailed behind him and snuck off to smack the angry schoolmaster’s head. Over 20 years later, it’s precisely as I remembered it – proof positive of The Red Balloon’s standing as a film so perfectly executed that every twist stays lodged in memory.

Released four years earlier (and also the recipient of the Palme d’Or in 1953), White Mane’s story of a young fisherman’s discovery and union with the wild horse of the title has lost some of its charm in translation. Updated with a dubbed English commentary – given Lamorisse’s skill with silence in The Red Balloon, even the French original would have been largely unnecessary – it feels cheapened, and almost patronizing.

Still, beautifully shot and executed (despite a few lapses in animal and children actor safety), White Mane’s impact can’t be entirely extinguished by its brutally mis-judged dubbing do-over. That The Red Balloon remains untouched taints even more what could – and damn well should – have been a pinnacle double feature. Do yourself a favour – once White Mane hits the screen, cue up your iPod to something suitably French (and most importantly, instrumental) and let Lamorisse’s images speak (or not speak at all, more accurately) for themselves.

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