By Tom Kapr
As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)
Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) (1956)
The Red Balloon is one of the stranger winners in Academy Awards history, and the strangeness is three-fold. In 1957, it won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar over Robert Lewin’s war drama The Bold and the Brave, Andrew L. Stone’s thriller Julie, Federico Fellini & Tullio Pinelli’s highly regarded La Strada, and William Rose’s dark comedy The Ladykillers. Here’s the first part of the strangeness: there is almost no dialogue in The Red Balloon, which is strange not in regards to its worthiness (for a screenplay is much more than just characters saying things, and The Red Balloon has a beautiful structure) but as a rare distinction in the history of the category. The second part of the strangeness regards why it was even considered for this category, again not because its screenplay is unworthy, but because the film is only about half an hour long, making it a short film and not a feature; and I would be surprised if this distinction was not just a rare one, but a unique one. However, it is the third part of the strangeness that is the strangest of all, for The Red Balloon was not nominated in the short film category. Yes, this short film, perhaps the only short film in the history of the awards to be nominated outside the short film category, was not nominated in the short film category. I, for one, would certainly love to hear the Academy’s explanation for that anomaly of anomalies.
My recent viewing of this film on Turner Classic Movies was my third experience with The Red Balloon. I had seen it as a child. The only impression I had of it from all those years ago was that it was boring and foreign (being a French film). My second experience happened in college when my Fine Arts professor showed it to us during class one morning. It didn’t make much of an impression on me then either, but I’m sure the atmosphere created by my snickering classmates didn’t help. (I admit there may have been some snickering on my part too, though it is more likely I used it as an opportunity to catch some Z’s.)
This third encounter finally cemented the film in my consciousness, and it turns out The Red Balloon is a beautiful, whimsical, sad yet ultimately uplifting film. (If you watch the film, you’ll discover how paronomastic it is for me to say that, yet I mean it sincerely.) The plot is simple: a boy (played by Pascal Lamorisse, son of the film’s writer/director Albert Lamorisse) finds a red balloon, which he takes with him to school and then home, where the balloon is unceremoniously tossed out the window by the boy’s guardian. (I get the impression these people “caring” for the boy are not his parents.) But instead of rising up and up into the sky, the balloon hovers around outside until the boy sees it and lets it back in. For the rest of the film, the balloon follows the boy around, while we quickly learn that this balloon is the first friend the boy has ever had. His classmates are bullies, as are the adults in his life, and the now-sentient balloon takes delight in teasing them, even psychologically tormenting his principal after the man locks the boy away as punishment for the disruption the balloon causes at school.
The ending is a tragically beautiful display of love as the boy heroically tries to save the balloon from the neighborhood gang of boys who want to pop it, and then as the balloon gives its life because it refuses to abandon the boy. It is one of the most agonizing death scenes in all of cinema, the death of the Red Balloon. It put me in mind of how I felt when Wilson the volleyball was lost at sea in Cast Away. I cried when I saw that scene at the theater, with Tom Hanks’ pitiful cries of remorse as he watches the only friend he’s known for the past four years float away into oblivion. That scene is deeply emotional because we, the audience, have projected humanity onto this inanimate object right along with Tom Hanks’ character in the film. Wilson, however, was just a volleyball. The Red Balloon has life, has thought, has emotion, and is as much a main character as the boy himself. It’s a heartbreaking scene that thankfully ends on a happier note as all the balloons in Paris suddenly flock to the boy and lift him above the city and away from all this misery and loneliness.
I highly recommend you take a half-hour and watch this film. It is available for streaming on Netflix. Or, you could even watch it here.
Learn more about The Red Balloon at the Internet Movie Database.