Criterion Cuts: “The Red Balloon”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s film is a lot shorter than usual, mostly because real life (and Skyrim) has put me way behind the curve on keeping up on stuff. But I still have quite a bit to talk about, so let’s just dive straight in.

The Red Balloon (1956)

Sometimes the best stories are the simplest stories, and of all the things I thought of while watching The Red Balloon that was the one that I kept coming to. Albert Lamorisse’s short film is the definition of minimal storytelling, the story of a young boy (played by the director’s son Pascal) who comes across a large red balloon. Through the peculiar magic of whimsical cinema, the balloon seems to have a mind of its own, and the two form a fast bond against an uncaring world.

And that’s it, really. It’s a short film that fills its scant run time with a surprising amount of story beats for the story it’s trying to tell, but it all boils down to the boy and the balloon. The balloon itself is as much a character as something inanimate can be, bouncing around and being as incredibly red and exceptional as it can be against the drab gray Paris backgrounds. And the gimmick is simple, undoubtedly achieved with no small amount of thin line to tug the balloon around, but it’s effective. The eponymous balloon ends up being a character on the same level as the boy, a loyal companion not unlike a pet, in a boy and his dog story filtered through a layer of visual surrealism to give it the twist it needs.

The thing I found myself thinking of most, though, was the various ways children are often depicted in films. There’s a certain verisimilitude and lack of idealism to children especially in European cinema that I appreciate. Maybe it’s just that so often the Hollywood version of children is abstracted to the point of set dressing or overcompensated into the ‘precocious, too-knowing child’ that it has tainted the whole idea of kids in film, but it’s refreshing to see a movie where a child is treated not as a child first, but as a character.

There’s a certain quality to this concept of children-as-characters that seems naturalistic and unromantic, but I feel that’s most much accurate to what being a child is like. These are human beings, with their own inner life and aspirations, at times stumbling into wisdom and other times woefully ill-prepared for the world. But they’re characters. Child is just a modifier. You can look at movies like The 400 Blows or Bicycle Thieves and see this kind of low-key depiction of children (not quite contemporaries, but relatively close), but it certainly also exists in early American cinema (Chaplin’s The Kid is a good example) before being dumbed down by generations of movie-making shorthand.

But the thing that The Red Balloon brought to mind most was the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Maybe it was the European backdrop to universal storytelling, maybe it was the magical nature of the titular balloon and how much the film dwelt on how it bobbed and flew around the frame, but I like to think it’s the same quiet understanding of how children work on screen. Miyazaki’s movies are often full of grand adventure and much bigger concepts, but they almost all of them rest upon quiet depictions of a nuanced, realistic child character, with little touches that feel so real they transcend typical cinematic moments.

The best example is in the beginning of The Red Balloon, when the boy first spots the balloon tied up to a street light. He is dressed in relatively nice school clothes, and carefully sets down his school briefcase before ungracefully shimmying up the pole like he was climbing a tree. The disregard for the niceties of his uniform but the care with which he sets down his briefcase seems perfectly suited to a child’s thoughtlessness. The entire character is made real in a single instant.

And for all the talk about children, it’s the perils of being a child that drive most of the plot of the film. The balloon is shut out of school and set outside of the boy’s apartment, left to linger by windows. When it finally drifts into an open school window, it causes chaos as every kid notices it and its unexplained sentience. Which leads to the ‘villain’ of the movie, a group of boys whose only response to something as wonderful as a living balloon seems to be to destroy it. It’s perhaps a normal narrative contrivance, but it seems less a conscious evil but instead simply the inability of many children to properly express themselves. When they set upon the boy and throw rocks at the balloon, it seems more out of a sense of jealousy and confused wonder than any malicious thought.

Which is the way of kids. They can be unduly shitty and savage with no provocation, or capable of the greatest senses of wonder that help us reexamine the world we live in. What The Red Balloon gives us, in no uncertain terms, is a little slice of magic for us to live in for a little while. It is that basic, realized dream form of cinema that is the backbone of why I love movies, distilled down here to its most digestible and delightful. Because who could hate a balloon?


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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