On every Monday night until December, Doc Films shows another film in their Cinema of Childhood series. While the programming so far has been full of great films, it is the double bill showing on Monday, November 10, that showcases some of the purest and simplest expression of childhood on film: Albert Lamorisse’s two short films The Red Balloon (1957) and White Mane (1953).
In The Red Balloon, a young boy finds a large red balloon while walking to school one day. Although he initially walks with the balloon’s string in his hand, the boy discovers that the balloon has a life of its own, choosing to follow the boy unattached, jump out of reach of meddling schoolteachers, and wait patiently outside the boy’s apartment when his mother throws the balloon out. Unfortunately, such an extraordinary balloon quickly attracts the attention of the boy’s classmates, who steal it and attempt to pop it with slingshots.
The film unfolds with very little dialogue, only the occasional command from the boy to the balloon (“Be good” or “Wait for me here”). Instead, it mostly consists of the boy silently walking around the streets of Paris, balloon close behind. Occasionally the boy will stop, at which point the balloon becomes playful, hiding in doorways and floating just above the boy’s head, making him jump and reach for it.
Therefore, as tends to happen with simplicity, there appears to be a desire among viewers to discover what it all means. A Google search for The Red Balloon yields suggestions like “Red Balloon meaning” or “Red Balloon symbolism” that turn up pages of complicated analysis. One critic has even interpreted the entire story as Christian allegory.
However, the film most deserves to just be taken at face value, as a lively exploration of childlike imagination. Whether or not we initially believe the balloon can have as much personality as it does, the boy’s own belief is so contagious as to spread outside the film, to convince child and adult viewers alike. As if to illustrate this point, although the schoolteachers are frustrated with the balloon’s refusal to cooperate, there’s a distinct visual match between them jumping for the elusive balloon and the boy doing exactly the same earlier. Whether they like it or not, the balloon has succeeded in reducing them all to children again.
The Red Balloon also casts director Lamorisse’s own son Pascal as the young boy, so there’s a quality of personal home movie that pervades the film. This is not just an attempt to capture “childhood” in general, but an attempt to record Lamorisse’s child with the sense of wonder and love that Lamorrisse sees in him. When the boy meets a young girl with her own blue balloon, who could it be but Lamorisse’s daughter, Sabine?
White Mane, on the other hand, features a much more concrete plot than does The Red Balloon. The titular White Mane is a wild stallion that roams free in the marshes of rural France. Although many wranglers attempt to capture White Mane, only a young fisherman boy named Folco is able to win him over, and the two become friends. However, the wranglers refuse to stop their efforts, leaving Folco to help White Mane escape capture once and for all.
Although White Mane is more plot-driven, the film still retains the sense of quiet simplicity later developed in The Red Balloon. The film does start with a narrator describing White Mane, but it then takes a long time before any characters actually speak in the film. Even then, it happens rarely. Furthermore, the most action-fueled scenes – including the wranglers wrestling White Mane and White Mane fighting a rival horse – occur without words or music, the only soundtrack the pattering of feet on dirt.
As with the young boy and his balloon, the same degree of childhood wonder is explored through Folco and White Mane. The instant Folco sees White Mane, he becomes enamored with the horse. He starts to daydream about walking with White Mane through the marshes, finding a friend in the horse in much the same way the boy finds a friend in the red balloon.
Both White Mane and The Red Balloon make the most out of the moments in childhood that don’t necessarily stir up much drama. When something as simple as a stray balloon or a misunderstood horse can occupy the mind for days. For the boy and Folco, the world is open for exploration, and words are much less important than actions.
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