Le Ballon Rouge
1. The husband and I were stocking our Instant Queue in Netflix, I stumbled across this little film, and something about it struck me as terribly familiar, so I added it to the queue.
2. Paris in July came up, and I had an excellent reason to watch it.
3. The husband went out of town, so I had an evening to myself.
Now, the husband is no slouch, and he will do a lot of things just because I want to, but I figured an artsy short film - in French, no less - might be something he'd endure rather than enjoy. So, I enjoyed it in his absence!
After doing some internet research, I have found that this film was regularly shown to American school children in the 60s and 70s, so it is possible I saw it then. It is also possible I watched as part of one of the many French classes I have taken over the years. However, after that initial familiarity, nothing else made me feel like I'd seen it. I was able to watch it with completely "new" eyes, even if I had seen it some years ago. I'm so glad I did, too.
This 1956 film is only about 35 minutes long, and the plot is less than compelling. A boy (Pascal) finds a large balloon on his way to school one day, and it becomes his companion. At first, he is afraid of losing it to the sky, and then when his caregiver (a grandmotherly type) releases it outside, he realizes it has a will of its own and has chosen to stay with him. Throughout the rest of the film, we watch it trail him through the streets of Paris - almost exclusively in a quarter of the city that no longer exists - and in and out of trouble. The schoolmaster locks the boy in a closet for distracting his schoolmates, and those schoolmates and other gangs of boys make it their quest to take the balloon from him. There are several fascinating chase scenes before the gang of boys finally corners Pascal and the balloon. One boy's slingshot finally hits its mark, the balloon slowly deflates, and another boy applies the final blow with his boot. I won't relate the rather fantastical ending here, but I will say that despite the seemingly silly plot and utter lack of dialogue, this film does satisfy something unusual in me (and apparently, in many other viewers).
Certainly, I must add my praise of the cinematography to the slew of similar accolades thrown upon this film. Paris here is not the city of lights, or glamour, or fashion; we don't even ever see Le Tour Eiffel or L'Arc de Triomphe. Instead, we are shown the gray facades of post-war Paris. There are crumbling walls, vacant lots, empty storefronts, peeling signs. Pascal is dressed all in gray, and much of the film is shot in low light or fog. Understandably, then, the red balloon jumps off the screen and is visually arresting. The cinematic choices really work. And even though the balloon was supposed to be the star, I was still completely enamored of the Paris shown through this lens. I love the streets, the slant of light in those teeny, narrow alleys, the stairways, the mounted gendarmes, the occasionally view of the city from a hilltop. I wanted to be there, to buy a pastry from that boulangerie, to simply be a child in Paris.
I am not alone in my fascination with this place. Clearly, the Paris in July experience has brought us out from under our covers. It holds a certain mystique for me that has not yet been matched by other places. And though I've been there once (a fleeting, frantic trip which I will try to relate in the next few days), I don't feel like I've ever gotten to experience Paris the way I would like. Like the balloon, I feel like I mostly floated somewhere above the reality of Paris; my feet did not clamor on those beautiful, historic cobbles.
The movie is charming. When I decide to share it with them, my children will love it. Who knows? The husband might even enjoy it as well. And even though I now know those particular stores and stairs no longer exist, I will watch it again, hoping to see the Paris that will one day be familiar to me as it is to this boy and his balloon.