The Red Balloon is one of my most favorite films, but I have no idea why I love it so much. It has a particularly transcendent quality about it which is impossible to describe. The idea behind the Red Balloon could be difficult to comprehend but it certainly is one of the most evocative and intriguing films I've ever seen.
Films come in different lengths and are accordingly termed as shorts or features, in any case a film should have a life of its own and The Red Balloon even at the modest length of 34 minutes is brimming with life. The Red Balloon also substantiates the fact that cinema is a unique art form and a story like this could only be told through cinema. Albert Lamorisse's tale if simply put is a series of images set in motion, moving at a lucid pace, capturing sights and sounds of breath-taking quality, with every moving frame emerges a poetry that captures our senses and draws us in this compelling dream-like tale.
The film is shot in the Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris and portrays a rather dismal atmosphere, this is not the Paris of Eiffel tower or Arc de Troimphe but a rather decrepit old Paris. The red balloon that appears in the very second shot of the film pops out like a cherry in an otherwise bleak blueish grey look of the film. Also in that shot the balloon is revealed with a tilt shot as the boy slowly climbs up the lamp-post creating a sort of magical moment as though the boy has found something magical like Aladdin's lamp. Now the balloon is magical, however almost an entire day passes by in the story-line till the magic is revealed. The balloon so far only seems to be an inanimate companion to the boy to which he shows great affection like when he tries to protect it from rain by placing it under pedestrian's umbrellas. Accompanying us from the beginning is this beautiful soundtrack by Maurice Leroux that sometimes halts for us to feel the texture of the sounds from this neighborhood, and the spoken word is sparsely used making the film even more sensory. The running footsteps and hooves of horses literally makes us feel the cobblestone paths and one particular moment that I found mesmerizing was the train passing under the bridge with it chugging sound that leaving behind a cloud of smoke while the kid looks at it holding the balloon. Lamorisse gives us a nice tour around the neighborhood displaying its architecture and textures and its characteristic citizens. The shots are held long enough for us to absorb the atmosphere with the balloon flying against the rundown apartment buildings providing an excellent contrast. Also Lamorisse wonderfully creates this quintessentially Parisian atmosphere as we see a glazier passing down the street shouting out the name of his profession, a postman delivering mails, the old buses, torn movie posters on the walls, hawkers, cars,the flea market, tight alleyways, cafes and bakeries, etc.
The balloon when fully revealed to be magical behaves like a living being, it hangs around the boy like a pet, follows him, obeys him, teases him and all of it despite it being mute. It is the friend the boy must've always dreamt of, but haven't we all dreamt of having such a friend when we were kids. And despite all that magic, the idea of this conscious balloon seems absolutely plausible, maybe because except for that intangible idea, everything in this film is real. There aren't any special effects, just clever cinematography and editing and a thin invisible string to guide the balloon.
The Red Balloon is a wonderful allegory, people will certainly have their own interpretations but for me the balloon simply represented freedom. Because it makes perfect sense when the balloon is not accepted in the school or in the house, and yet it lingers around outside waiting for us to embrace it again. Aren't all our freedoms tied to the lamp-posts waiting for us to untie it. Isn't our freedom born from our very consciousness, and isn't this world when given a chance is ready to destroy it mercilessly as the savage boys does it.
The French were under the Nazi occupation during WWII and this being a post war film, it seemed to me that those bunch of cruel boys represented them Nazis who mercilessly kills the balloon only for hundreds of balloon from across the neighborhood to come lift the boy up liberating him, one shot even shows three balloons flying in a row replicating the colors of the French flag. Of course the balloon represents much more than freedom, there is companionship, happiness, hope, dreams and perhaps lot many things which are completely left to viewer's interpretation.
There are two ways to look at The Red Balloon, either as a child watching a fantastical story or as an adult trying to figure out the metaphor. However with any of these two distinct viewpoints, The Red Balloon is sheer delight.