Film

What childhood films are these?

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It may sound strange that Albert Lamorisse, the man who made the classic
kids’ films The Red Balloon and White Mane—about a boy’s
adventures with a red balloon in Paris and a boy’s friendship with a
wild horse in wetlands in Southern France, respectively—also invented
the board game Risk, where players strive for world military
domination.

But neither ’50s film is as sweet and light as it first seems. These
are post-war stories of innocence threatened—by arrogant, selfish gangs
bent on proving their superiority.

Lamorisse’s more famous of the pair, The Red Balloon, won the Cannes
Palme d’Or in 1956, the year it was released, and is so far the only
short film to win an Oscar outside that category, for best screenplay. A
cinematic landmark, it’s inspired a 1994 remake, a short horror
“sequel,” Revenge of the Red Balloon, a 2007 feature-length riff
by Hou Hsiao-Hsien (with Juliette Binoche), and Jafar Panahi’s debut
The White Balloon, shot in Tehran, where Lamorisse died (in a helicopter
crash while shooting a documentary about Iran).
The Red Balloon opens with a shot of Cartier-Bresson-like photographic
beauty—a misty morning view of Paris between two stone buildings, at
the top of a long flight of stairs. Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse, the
writer-director’s son) is off to school, but near the bottom of the
stairs he spots something above him. Shimmying up a lamppost, he unties a fat
red balloon and traipses off to class with it, his attaché case in his
other hand.

The bright gloss of the balloon’s curve even outshines the sheen of
rain-slicked streets in the City of Lights. The airy ball of red splashes
past gray walls and battered apartment blocks, catching the eye of the adults
rushing off to work—this is naturalist filmmaking at its finest, with
most of the passersby not seeming to be aware of the camera, their curiosity
tugged towards the simple, handsome sight of a little boy holding a red
balloon.

The boy imitates his elders, telling the balloon, “You must obey me,
and be good!” Sure enough, the balloon waits outside his balcony window
for him and then, preferring not to be held, bobs along behind him to school
the next day, following the boy’s tram through a traffic circle,
flirting with a girl’s blue balloon, evading the clutches of
Pascal’s classmates, even teasing a severe headmaster, dressed all in
black.

So far, this seems a post-Occupation France happy to forget the blood and
death of Hitler’s war a decade earlier. But soon people’s
occasional, playful efforts to grab the floating, carefree balloon become
grasping and destructive.

In a gorgeous sequence, light streaming down alleys as children’s shoes
clack and clatter on the cobblestones, the red globe bouncing between the
walls, Pascal is hunted down for his floating pet. The film’s
ballooning sense of hope and freedom is deflated by a fierce, squabbling
mass. Then, fortunately, Lamorisse’s film floats off, with the breeze
of magic-realism, into a feeling of escape and peace, The Red Balloon taking
hold of Pascal, lifting him out of this rigid, petty, earthbound life.

White Mane, winner of the Cannes Grand Prix in 1953, is a more conventional
children’s story, a Black Beauty-ish tale in which the messy, Darwinian
wild is given a clean, kind narrative arc. The twists in the tale come with
the conflict and the ending.

The conflict pits White Mane, the “proud and fearsome” leader of
a group of wild horses in the Camargue region of Southern France, against
man. Horse-wranglers and ranchers want to corral and break the stallion. But
he bucks, dances and gallops away every time, refusing men’s need to
dominate and destroy.
Fisher-boy Folco (Alain Emery) lives in quiet, secluded harmony with nature,
netting his catch each day and living in a cottage with his grandfather and
little brother (a toddling Pascal Lamorisse). He’s awed by White Mane
and tries to help him. The film is a little drawn-out and precious in places,
Folco’s world is pretty Edenic and even the minimal, voiced commentary
(by author James Agee) and translation are a little jarring.

The black-and-white shots are beautiful, though, particularly a milky
dissolve into Folco’s dream of leading White Mane to a pursuit, where
the camera sends us galloping along with the horses in marshland, through
dunes and over cracked earth, the clop and stamp of hooves resounding.

And then there is the closing shot, a fantastic melding of escape and loss,
the white mane of the sea’s surf tumbling into shore as man’s
overriding urge to conquer and control is evaded forever and all that is
left, “straight ahead, straight ahead,” is the freedom of the
horizon, where open water and open sky come together. V

Sat, Dec 15, Tue, Dec 18 (7 pm)
Sun, Dec 16 (4:30 pm)
The Red Balloon
Written & Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Starring Pascal Lamorisse
White Mane
Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Written by James Agee, Denys Colomb Daunant, Lamorisse
starring alain emery
Metro Cinema, $10; matinee $5

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