The red balloon

I’d nearly gone right past before I realized what I’d just seen. A balloon, drifting past the chairs and tables of a café in Montmartre. A red balloon. In Paris. I turned around and photographed it, murmuring to a bemused café patron nearby, “C’est un ballon rouge. A Paris! Il faut le photographier.” I’m not sure if he knew what I was on about, but he smiled encouragingly (or placatingly, assuming I was a nutcase).

I didn’t see the movie of The Red Balloon until I was an adult, but when I was about seven years old, I found a book based on the movie in my Grade 2 classroom, with a series of still photographs that told the story, no text (that I recall). My best friend and I frequently pored over the book, with its cast of boisterous Paris children in the streets of Ménilmontant, its magical relationship between a boy and a balloon, and its exhilarating and redemptive climax.

If you have never seen the movie (made in 1956), here is the story. A little boy spots a large red balloon attached to a thick string that is snarled up in a lamppost. He climbs the lamppost and disentangles the string to free the balloon. He can’t take on the bus, and has to run to school, which makes him late. He takes the balloon home, but his stern guardian (an elderly, grim-looking woman, clearly not his mother) ejects it. Undaunted, the balloon drifts up to his window and rejoins the little boy.

Thereafter, the balloon follows him everywhere. He does not need to hold the string; the balloon simply follows him. It strays only twice, once when distracted by an attractive blue balloon held by a little girl, and a second time at a flea market, when it becomes entranced by its own reflection in a mirror.

Inevitably, a gang of bullies notices this oddity and becomes jealous. They kidnap the balloon and fire on it with slingshots. The little boy rescues it briefly, and a chase through the alleys of the quartier ensues.

Alas, the balloon is recaptured and in an epic fight on a patch of vacant land, the bullies go in for the kill. The little boy watches in horror as the balloon is punctured and dies a slow, agonizing death. You can see it diminish and wrinkle; even its stout string becomes bent in its final throes. (The scene takes place in silence, except for the sound of escaping air. If you are not misty-eyed by now, you have a heart of stone.) A final kick from one of the nasty children, and it is gone.

But the death of the red balloon is not the ending. As it expires, balloons from across the city seem to hear its death-rattle and they converge on the scene. They jerk themselves from the hands of other children, they burst from windows and doors. Some form orderly rows as they approach the site of the murder; others arrived in clusters. The balloons proffer their strings to the heartbroken little boy, he gathers them up, and they bear him up into the sky, away from his tormentors, from Ménilmontant, from the city.

It never fails to move me. I think anyone who has felt a bit out of it as a child can relate.

There was a sequel, of sorts. In 2007, filmmaker Hsiao-hsien Hou made The Flight of the Red Balloon, with Juliette Binoche. It was a nice enough film, but the red balloon hovers on the margins on the film, watching over Binoche’s lonely son and his Chinese babysitter, but never really entering into the story. It seemed a waste of a good character. When you’ve been shown that balloons have personalities (loyalty, vanity, daring), can you go back to seeing them just as props?

The original film was written and directed by Albert Lamorisse and the little boy was played by his son Pascal. (The little girl with the blue balloon was his daughter, Sabine.) It won the Palme d’Or for short films at Cannes and an Oscar for best screenplay in 1957. The father-and-son team went on to make a further balloon-themed movie called Le Voyage en Ballon (English title: Stowaway in the Sky), which apparently won some awards, but I’ve never seen it or met anyone who has. Albert died in 1970, in a helicopter crash, while filming in Iran. The Red Balloon is his most enduring achievement.

Its setting, however, did not endure. Most of the streets in which the movie was shot have long ceased to exist, destroyed by urban renewal programs that swept away huge sections of Belleville and Ménilmontant. Only the huge church shown in the film, Notre Dame de la Croix, remains. Before their destruction, many of these streets were photographed by Willy Ronis – such as the famous Y-shaped intersection of stairs at the rue Vilin, which features in the film.

Even the green buses with their open platforms at the back have gone, although the No. 96 bus featured in the film still seems to ply the same route. Norman and I rode on a bus with an open rear platform during a visit to Paris in, I think, 2004 (the last ones in service travelled the No. 29 route through the Marais to the Gare St-Lazare), but these models have now been entirely phased out.

The enchantment of The Red Balloon is not just a matter of Paris nostalgia. In the course of 34 minutes, it provokes laughter, indignation, anxiety, grief, and exaltation. It stirs long-forgotten memories of childhood – the possessions that meant so much at the time, the bullies who damaged them, and the longing to fly away. Haven’t we all been there, and haven’t we all escaped?

Links: The actual movie lasts about half an hour and can be watched on YouTube in four installments (type in “Ballon Rouge” and you’ll find it). There is next to no dialogue, so you don’t need to understand French. There is also a good two-minute overview available on YouTube here.

Text and photographs copyright 2010 Philippa Campsie

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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13 Responses to The red balloon

  1. Alison says:

    Well done, yet again! I do remember the story vaguely and it comes back when I read your moving synopsis. Must go and rewatch the film again now. Thank you.

  2. Alex says:

    Sounds like a movie designed to tug at the heart strings – I’d love to watch it. Yet another great post. Keep them coming!

  3. Katherine Louise says:

    I am enjoying your posts very much. My husband sent flowers and a balloon to the office for my birthday; I tied the balloon to my door handle, where she bobbed happily. The day after you posted this, she got loose — first, she tried to escape out the open window, then, an office mate brought her back to me — she had been wandering on her own in and out of other offices. Thankfully. she came home safely!

    • Dear Katherine Louise,

      What a lovely story. Apparently balloons have secret personalities — yours obviously had a highly developed sense of curiosity!


  4. I remember watching that movie at preschool around 1970, but can’t remember what it’s about. I will have to re-look.

  5. Hazel says:

    We watched that film and the one about the carousel pony over and over again in elementary school. Probably 8 or 10 times. I bought the book for my son.

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  7. Carlos Roda Cid says:

    I watched The red balloon in 1957…when I was ten years old.I never forgot this film .Now i can watch it again a lot of times thanks to Youtube and I feel the same 1957 emotion .

  8. James says:

    A friend says that the balloons in the film are animation and were added after the actors had gone through all their filmed physicality. Does anyone know how the filming was done?

    • I don’t know how the filming was done, but I don’t think that the technique of combining live footage and animation was at a very sophisticated level when the film was made.

    • Will says:

      I’m fairly sure it’s more simple than that, with the base of the balloon attached to fishing line held tight horizontally from off screen left and right, and the string hanging loose below that. For the scenes where the balloon follows the boy anyway.

  9. I loved the film and really appreciate this blog, especially this one line “when you’ve seen that balloons have personalities (loyalty, vanity, daring) can you go back to seeing them as just props?” – brilliant. I remember hearing the Director of “Up” saying that his film was inspired by The Red Balloon film that he’d seen as a child
    I’m going to Paris this month and I would love to walk some of the scenes so that I can photograph them for my 9 year old grandson who is now also a Red Balloon fan.
    Lovely finding this blog – I didn’t know there was so many of us.

    • Alas, the Paris in which the movie was filmed has largely disappeared. And yet, if you are dedicated and patient, you will find some bits of Menilmontant that remain after massive redevelopment in the quartier. Enjoy your trip and your explorations of the area. I am sure your grandson will be delighted to see your photographs.


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