The Red Balloon & White Mane Review
If he is remembered for nothing else in a brief filmmaking career that ended tragically in a helicopter accident while making a feature film in Iran in 1970, the French director Albert Lamorisse will certainly be immortalised for two short features that respectively won him the Grand Prix and Palme d’or awards at Cannes in 1953 and 1956, two beautiful short films that celebrate the experience of childhood, capturing the wonder and joys of the world as seen through innocent eyes, but without false sentimentality and without denying the sometimes harsh realities that have to be faced as one grows up.
Winner of the Palme d’or in 1956, and even winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, despite only having at most 5 lines of dialogue, The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge) remains a wonderful achievement with its fluid storytelling that operates almost entirely without the need for spoken dialogue. Almost certainly the first foreign film I ever saw as a child over 35 years ago and recalling it as an unforgettable if somewhat traumatic experience, even now The Red Balloon is a model of beauty and simplicity that still has tremendous power in its imagery and symbolism. Its story of a young child (Lamorrise’s own son, Pascal) who finds a red balloon entangled on a street lamp and strikes up a magical relationship of innocence and wonder with it, is simplicity itself. Filmed in glorious Technicolor out on the streets of 1950s Paris at a time when everyone wore a beret, the film is a children’s picture-book fairytale, Lamorisse’s eye as a former photographer showing in every beautifully composed, colour balanced frame of the film.
Fantastic though it might appear, there is however a sense of truth and realism that underlies The Red Balloon, and it’s an important facet that makes the film truly a classic piece of cinema. Shot in Belleville/Menilmontant, a district of Paris that was almost completely demolished in the 1960s, The Red Balloon is situated in a lost world that still shows traces of the suffering endured in Paris in the post-war years. Having to cope with adversity and disapproval from all sides, the young boy and his red balloon consequently become an expression of youth, loss of innocence, the future, progress and enlightenment. It’s a sentiment that, looking back at a fantastical lost district of Paris, only takes on an even greater force with the passing of time and the rapid changes that the world has undergone in such a relatively short time.
Lamorisse’s earlier short feature, White Mane (Crin Blanc, le cheval sauvage) is another fine example of the director’s visual storytelling abilities. While not as well-known as The Red Balloon, it’s in reality scarcely less a wonderful achievement, the short feature also distinguished by its winning of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1953. With only a few lines of narration and minimal dialogue, the black-and-white short feature tells the tale of a wild horse known as White Mane in the marshlands of the Camargue region of the South of France, the horse’s fierce independence and hatred of mankind inspiring a young boy, Folco(Alain Emery), fishing on the coast there.
White Mane is a beautiful film that can be enjoyed purely on a visual and storytelling level - the photography and camera movements are staggeringly good in this regard - as well as having similar symbolism and themes found in The Red Balloon. Without the need for over-analysis, the meaning of both films is consequently easily readable by adults and children alike. Although there are a few lines of narration and even fewer words of dialogue, nothing needs to be spelled out, the film and its meaning capable of being transmitted and comprehended intuitively simply through the power of the images and situation alone. Again, like The Red Balloon, White Mane doesn’t sweeten the pill by softening any sense of real danger and threat that the young boy and his untameable horse face - it’s tough love and the film consequently is all the greater for it and more deeply impression-forming than, for example, its more modern US counterpart The Black Stallion.
The Red Balloon & White Mane is released in the UK by Network to accompany their release of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s modern tribute Flight of the Red Balloon. The disc is single-layer and the transfer is in PAL format. The release is region-free.
The quality of the restored image for The Red Balloon is remarkable. The colour tones of the Technicolor processing are outstanding, the spots of colour – often the balloon itself – standing out in contrast to the deep blues and greys of the Parisian streets. Some light grain might be the only issue, and this is unfortunately not helped by the transfer which exhibits occasional shimmering and compression artefacts. Depending on the luminescence of your display device, the reds may also appear to be a little oversaturated with a tendency to bleed at edges.
The transfer for White Mane is also very good. The image tends towards soft and there are no strong contrasts, but there is a reasonably good range of greyscale tones in the black-and-white image, showing the texture and detail that is in the print. There is some occasional faint flickering, but no significant marks or damage to the print, which is reasonably well transferred.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is used for the mono track on each of the films. There is a faint level of hiss detectable on The Red Balloon, but the restored track on both films is still reasonably good, the music score and the minimal dialogue coming across fairly clearly.
The limited English subtitles are provided in a white font and are fixed on the prints for both films. They are a little more easily legible on the colour film, but don’t stand out quite as well on the monochrome White Mane.
There are no extra features on this release. A simple menu allows selection of each of the two films, with a chapter selection option, but nothing else.
With their fairytale-like visuals and storylines that have real depth and emotional content at their heart, The Red Balloon and White Mane are certainly two of the best short films ever made for children. Personally, as someone who saw The Red Balloon over 35 years ago as a child, I can affirm that it’s the kind of film that can form a life-time impression and that the film’s qualities have only gotten stronger with the passing of time. Network’s UK DVD release is disappointingly barebones and technically not the strongest, but it’s good to have the films made available on a collected edition and the restored image for both films is indeed a marvel.