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