Follow the poignant adventures of a young boy around the suburban streets of 20th century France in this 1956 Oscar-Winning classic.
Somehow or another I found this title on my “to watch” list. How it got on the list I am not certain—perhaps it was recommended in a book, or from someone I follow—but I now know that having watched it, it should be on everyone’s list.
I’d been postponing its watching for months, in favour of more appealing, interesting, engaging, action-based, fantasical films—or so I thought. If only I’d known what I’d been putting off; if only I knew how ignorant I had been.
I type the title into YouTube and discover that the film is only 30 minutes long. I put it on, and from the first minute I am engrossed. Engrossed by the suburban streets of 20th century France. Engrossed by the curious looking boy, standing out amidst distracted, incurious adults. Engrossed by the innocent scene of a boy climbing a lamppost to a tangled up balloon; a red balloon, a big red shiny red balloon.
Watching this scene, it’s almost as if your subconsciously know how the rest of the film will pan out. Consciously, however, you wait in eager anticipation of an injection of action, or for something to go wrong, or for another character, or, at the very least, a conversation. You expect something more, but the rest of the movie is based solely on this boy; this boy and his newfound, red balloon…
What follows is one of the most beautiful pieces of film ever written. Minute by minute the story grows on you, starts to play with your emotional dials; suddenly you find yourself attached to the balloon just as much as the young boy, maybe more so, and fighting, just as hard, for freedom, liberty, and to be left alone.
Imbued in the story are some very deep, profound and thought-provoking philosophical messages—some subtle, some obvious; some deliberate, some likely unintended inclusions. One of these can be found in the scene upon which the whole film is based—where the boy ‘recuses’ the balloon— and the consequences that follow it. The act of freeing the balloon from the lamppost was an intrinsic good deed; as a result, good things then happen to him, for him, as he goes about his day: walkers on the street happily share their umbrella with him and his balloon, as rain falls on the streets of Ménilmontant; and near the end, by ‘chance’ he bumps into a girl, a potential mate, who also has a balloon. The message in disguise is this: do good things and good things will be done unto you.
Another can be found when the boy tries to let the balloon go—because it is inconvenient, because he no longer wants it—but it stubbornly follows him around; and, when the tide turns, when the boy wants to grab the balloon again but it no longer wants to be held—so it plays ‘hard to get.’ These funny moments display a fundamental truth about human nature: we know not what we have until we’re separated, or confronted with the possibility of losing it. It also reflects how we go about some relationships: they start with mutual interest, but then one person (call him Jay) gets bored and shows less appreciation, maybe even tries to move on, but it still liked by the other (Kate); but then Jay realises his mistake and tries to go back to Kate, but Kate isn’t so sure—and so it goes on…
What about when other people enter the frame—people who want a piece, too? In the film, envious boys from the neighbourhood take an interest in the boy’s (Pascal) balloon and start to hunt both him and his new friend down. This ‘war against the bullies’ brings Pascal and the balloon closer together—which reflects another humbling truth about life: differences dissolve when fighting a common cause.
We become attached to trivial things, things that don’t matter: this, you could say, is what the whole film is about. As the story progresses, both you and the Pascal grow increasingly attached to the ballon. Why— when it is just a shiny piece of elasticated plastic inflated with helium? The stories we tell ourselves—that’s why. Without the fiction Pascal builds up in his juvenile imagination, the balloon, for all practical purposes, is useless, meaningless. He could of simply untangled it off the lamppost and left it; heck, he could of just left it on the lamppost! He could of let the boys have it. When it followed him, he simply could of ignored it. But he didn’t. He did what all humans do: grow attached. Our attachments to objects, people, pets, ideas and states of mind do not come without consequences, and this hits home hard when you, as a completely ‘detached’ viewer of the film, start to feel hurt, anger, and resentment, when the other boys try to take out the balloon. A better word would be ‘kill,’ but only when you watch the film can you understand why.
A further message portrayed in the story, perhaps the most obvious one, is best described by the Japanese adage, “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.” This quote refers to the anti-failure, anti-‘think different’ attitude of a large percentage of Asian culture (although this is changing): do not go against the grain, or you shall be ridiculed, hunted down, punished. It appears, in the film, that Pascal and his balloon are hunted tirelessly by envious bullies—but are they bullies; is ‘bullies’ to strong a word? Maybe they are just behaving the way all humans do in groups, whereby our worst traits are so easily exacerbated. They see Pascal happy, lively, free, and they don’t like it; if they can’t have a piece, he can’t have a piece. This behaviour is not abnormal; in fact, most humans experience feeling of envy, jealousy, and even schadenfreude,1on a daily basis. Many films, documentaries, and books attempt to paint the picture of freedom being hunted down, but few do it as beautifully and profoundly, as The Red Balloon.2
You can find the film here (ignore warnings about an ‘unsafe website’: they are just there to stop you watching the film).