By Brian Lafferty
May 23, 2011 (San Diego) – Today’s Netflix Streaming Pick of the Week is inspired by this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up yesterday. The film world has been abuzz with Cannes fever including, but not limited to, Lars Von Trier’s controversial Hitler remarks and the Palme d’Or going to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
For this week’s pick, I’m turning the clock back forty-five years. It isn’t a feature length film but it has the power of an excellent one. It won many awards around the world, including the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1956 and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1957. That short film is The Red Balloon.
The Red Balloon is a simple story about a boy (Pascal Lamorisse, son of director Albert Lamorisse) who finds a big red balloon. This balloon has a mind of its own, following the boy around the streets of Paris, France. The two become inseparable until a bunch of older bullies destroy it out of jealousy.
The movie, which is only thirty-four minutes long, contains barely any spoken dialogue. It has the atmosphere of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, which, like this film, emphasized urban sounds of cars driving, people’s feet hitting the pavement, and horses hooves’ clopping. The Red Balloon also includes sounds of children yelling and playing.
The few lines of dialogue are in French and are subtitled but consist only of simple phrases. This isn’t the type of film that needs spoken words, however. Lamorisse opts for a visual storytelling approach. He includes many shots of the boy and his helium-filled friend walking along the streets of Paris, which are photographed with painterly quality by cinematographer Edmond Séchan.
This, combined with the alternately whimsical, somber, and innocent musical score by Maurice Leroux and the precise body language and movements by the actors and the balloon, are all that are needed to tell the story.
The animation of the balloon, like the entire film, is simple. It is big with strikingly bold red. Cinematographer Séchan’s use of a desaturated color palette brings out not just its color but everything about it. What kept my eyes affixed to the screen during the entire short was the way the balloon moved. It doesn’t zoom quickly in straight lines but floats like a feather, with a herky-jerky motion like a normal balloon would have.
The balloon is responsible for much of the humor. There is a moment when the principal of the boy’s school locks him up after it causes a distraction in class. It doesn’t like it so he follows the principal. It agitates him by poking him in the back of the head and teases him by jolting upward when he tries to grab it.
It is also responsible for the more tender moments. The balloon may not have a face or voice, but its personality is most evident when it spots a blue balloon. It’s all in the way it “sees” the balloon, follows it, and gets close to it. Through its many subtle movements, it communicates to its blue counterpart and to the audience the feelings of being in love and the frustration of having to leave with the boy.
The Red Balloon is a gentle and earnest film, a thirty-four minute cinematic treasure. The last scene, which reminded me of Pixar’s Up both visually and thematically, is uplifting in all senses of the word.
Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.