if, like me these days, you find yourself in need of a cinematic restorative but time isn't a luxury that you have in surplus, allow me me to make a recommendation.
albert lamorisse's the red balloon (1956) is one of my favorite pieces of magical realism in cinema. it's classified as a children's film but i've always thought of that as a narrow and restrictive designation. adults cheat themselves out of a good deal of beauty by ignoring what they consider to be "kid's stuff". in a scant thirty-four minutes, lamorisse - with the help of his own children - transforms a somewhat drab and overcast paris into a place where anything feels possible, no matter what your age.
it begins with a boy, school clothes as gray as his surroundings, descending into the city to make his way to school. almost immediately, something catches his attention outside of the frame and he begins to climb a lamppost to retrieve it. the camera pans up to reveal the most red, lively balloon any kid has ever laid eyes on. right away, the slightly delayed introduction of the balloon is a lovely touch. we are not allowed to see what he sees for a moment or two, both underlining the special relationship between boy and balloon - almost as if he might be the only one that can see it - and piquing our curiosity. balloon safely in hand, he resumes the trek to school but is shut out by the conductor who will have no balloons on his trolley. left with little recourse, he is off to the races, running all the way to school, lest he be late, and leaving his balloon in the hands of the gentle custodian until he can come for it when school is out. with the last bell, he reclaims his balloon and heads home. it's a rainy afternoon, but it presents little problem as a number of adults are willing to share their umbrellas.
throughout this short, almost entirely wordless film, pascal, our little protagonist, impresses us with his boundless energy, charm and active, agile mind. he is no ordinary kid. there is a bright curiosity and genuine happiness in his face that makes it easy to believe that this balloon would seek him out. before long, he and his new pal arrive home, where things are less than ideal, and his grandmother throws the balloon out of the window. for the first time, we see that the balloon is more than an inanimate object, as it hovers craftily around the balcony until the boy lets it back in again, with grandma being none the wiser. slowly, we are seeing a relationship form between boy and balloon.
this second act essentially repeats the actions of the first, except boy and balloon are now pretty much inseparable. the balloon is downright sentient at this point, and the walk to school is one game after another, the balloon almost puppy-like in its playfulness. once again, they attempt to get on the trolley and are denied. this time though, the boy merely instructs the balloon to follow and it does, speeding loyally behind the streetcar all the way to school, where it causes a mini-riot among his classmates upon arrival. it manages to avoid the tiny, grasping mob but is such a distraction throughout the day that the boy is taken out of class and locked in a room by himself. in retaliation, the balloon begins a campaign to harass the rigid headmaster that is so confounding and irritating that he has no choice but to let the boy out. together, they amble slowly home again, wandering through a street bazaar that's not so much exotic as it is indicative of a paris that is just a decade or so removed from catastrophe, still digging itself out of wartime rubble in places. the sidewalk is littered with potential magic, objects lying everywhere that could be like this balloon. they are just waiting for someone to see them with the right eyes, to take them in, care for them and protect them. leaving the bazaar, in a touching and comic episode, they cross paths with a girl with a balloon of her own. even balloons can have their heads turned.
crazy dame, nothing comes between a boy and his balloon!
almost home, they are set upon by a group of bullies. chased by this silly rabble, he and the balloon are more than a match for them and they cleverly conspire to outwit them. boy goes this way, balloon goes that way, we'll meet at the balcony and all is well for another night.
the final act opens the next morning with the boy and his grandmother on the way to church. of course, the balloon follows, proves just as disruptive in church as in school and he and the boy make a break for it. together, they can't be hemmed in by any institution or authority figure. the simple pleasures in the relationship between this boy and balloon now transcend all your silly codes of conduct. what they don't transcend, unfortunately, is the lure of the bakery window.
turning his back for a moment in pursuit of treats, his balloon is captured by a group of young thugs. you know the type, the type that has to destroy anything they don't understand. they abscond with it and begin to use it for target practice with their slingshots, that most biblical of children's weapons. he rescues the balloon and leads them on a spirited chase through myriad, labyrinthine parisian alleyways, but it is ultimately to no avail. he and the balloon are surrounded and the balloon meets its sad, slow demise in a hail of stones, eventually stomped to death. this balloon's ability to play a death scene puts many a human actor to shame. at first, you think it might be alright. then you notice an almost imperceptible shrinking. your worst fears are confirmed as a network of creases and ridges shoot across its surface. it looks like a miniature, red armageddon, the end of a tiny world. when that little shoe delivers the final blow, it's hard to tell if it's cruelty or mercy. as pascal mourns his fallen comrade, balloons all over paris shoot out of their owners' hands and take to the sky, rushing to his aid. they descend on this little battlefield and form a colorful brigade to lift him up over the city, taking him where his tormentors, be they bullies or bureaucrats, cannot go with their limited imaginations.
it really is a beautiful paean to loyalty, devotion and the power of imagination. five decades on and it's still sheer magic. find half an hour somewhere in your day and do yourself this favor.