“… as happy as a boy:
The pleasant season did my heart employ:
My old remembrances went from me wholly;
And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.”(Resolution and Independence, by William Wordsoworth)
I can clearly remember the first time my father gave me his own old copy of the storybook “The Red Balloon”, with its beauteous pictures. It was like walking in the streets of Paris, wondrous and whimsical. Until a while ago, I didn’t know that this children’s book of mine, is based on a 1956 short 34-minute movie by the same name. A movie that to my sight was just as beauteous, wondrous and poetic. As a young boy, I followed the story of the balloon in the book and walked through the gaudy presence of enjoyment in the pale streets of Paris. As a young man, I followed the character of the boy in the movie and delved into the psychological absence of enjoyment in the symbolism of post-war Europe. None of these two perspectives are neither superior nor inferior; after all, it is a children’s story, but created out of the seasoned genius of an artist named Albert Lamorisse. And as for me, I think it is the most that anyone can get from this story: that the world is a depressing place full of sophisticated implications, but if you see it through the eyes of a child, it’s a cheerful play full of giddy delights.
The movie begins in the grey streets of Paris in the 1950s, just a decade after the devastation of the second world war, and right at the beginning of the post-modern era in art and culture. A young boy – whose school uniform is also grey – finds a bright red balloon in the colourless world of adults. To my understanding, from the beginning, the theme of this story is about innocence, imagination, and individuality. It can be inferred from the story, that the innocence (and the child-like state of mind), is a source of imagination, to find the red balloon to which no one pays any attention, in the street. This very imagination can be a source of individuality, an internal armour against the strike of nihility in the post-modern era. In this chain, individuality itself may lead to redemption and emancipation from the yoke of trivial affairs of humans and their civilization. This theme of innocence, imagination and independence has a romantic mindset to it and alludes to the kind of ideas about the redemptive power of childhood, like the one in the quotation provided at the beginning of this essay from Wordsworth. Loneliness can also be considered a thematic concept in the movie, given that the main character, Pascal, is almost always seen alone and isolated from society. In fact, it may be one of the implications of the story that loneliness is a source of imagination and a platform for individuality to be flourished. The very redemptive conclusion at the end of the movie comes from sheer loneliness when Pascal loses the only friend, he has known: the red balloon.
When I started to watch this short film, it immediately reminded me of the childhood scenes of the 1982 Allan Parker movie: The Wall; a symbolic movie based on Pink Floyd’s conceptual album by the same name. Although it is not impossible that Allen Parker was influenced by The Red Balloon, I believe the similarities mostly come from having the same theme and worldview. Bedevilling the schoolmaster in The Wall, synchronized with the iconic song (“We don’t need no education …”) parallels the demonic role of the headmaster in The Red Balloon, both of whom are depicted as critics of childhood imagination. The themes of loneliness and individuality are also present in both movies. Befriending a balloon by Pascal is quite similar to the friendship of Pink with a sick rat. The mothers of both characters are against these friendships, and they don’t let these friends in their houses, symbolising the alienation of the individual from society. In the end, the redemption Pink gets, by lying on his deathbed (with the music singing: “mother am I really dying?”) is a result of his friendship with an unsanitary rat, just as Pascal’s ascendance to the heavenly sky is an answer to his companionship with the red balloon. Both characters, not by choice but by the virtue of their imagination, are revolting against being “another brick in the wall”, and both through the merit of loneliness, “have become comfortably numb”.
This isolation stemming from innocence is quite obvious from the very beginning of the movie. Pascal walks the streets alone, he finds the balloon (which can be a symbol of imagination) alone, and he continues to be alone in almost every other scene. This imagination itself can be a cause of loneliness, as well as a result of it. He, literally, cannot get on the same bus with other people. It is not he who is not allowed in the bus, but the balloon that is forbidden in post-modern society. If we take this interpretation that the balloon is a symbol of innocence and imagination, then it seems so fitting that Pascal must leave the balloon outside the classroom of his school; It is not permitted inside this construction of civilization, nor is it welcomed by the headmaster, who is the director of this social institution. Education is not the only cultural institution that detests the balloon, family (and “Mother” as the prominent figure in it) forbids it as well. In the later scenes, we even see the church – hence the institution of religion – that expels the balloon. The adult world, by no means, is able to tolerate the innocent visionary outlook of this child. The love and care the boy bears for this balloon (protecting it against rain under an umbrella), is incomprehensible to the civilized people, and in a very iconic scene, the balloon disappears completely in the smoke of a train; a plain symbol of post-industrial revolution development and technology.
Is this balloon of individuality even real? Or is it just an imaginary friend to a lonely boy? This is definitely the question you would ask when you see the balloon starts to act like it has a level of consciousness. However, the subjective or objective nature of this existence doesn’t really change the role that balloon is playing in the world of this child. It wouldn’t change our encounter with the movie either. In fact, in a Heideggerian sense, this transposition of the balloon, from an “available” (or “hands-on”) state of being to an “occurant” (or “focus-on”) state, is actually transcending our encounter with it (and also the boy’s) by amalgamating the subject/object duality. Therefore, regardless of the subjective or objective quality of balloon’s existence, it definitely is something of importance for the universe we are dealing with. The very ambiguity of its objective being can be an agitation against “subjectivism” and “instrumentalism” of the early post-modern time of the 1950s. The interactions between the boy and the balloon, are mirrored by the balloon later with the other children. The balloon is not only conscious, but it is also learning. Pascal gets punished because of the balloon, both in school, the house, and society as a whole. His life is heavily affected by this encounter irrespective of its nature of it. Even if the balloon is imaginary, it is grown out of the same imagination it is representing; A feature in the boy which throughout the movie, the whole society tries hard to attack, every time unsuccessful, and in the end when they destroy this imagination, quite phoenix-like, it blooms out of its ashes, greater and more marvellous.
Pascal, like any of us would do, tries to fit himself into this disagreeing society. When he wants to take the bus on the second day, he lets the balloon go – taking the risk of it never coming back again – to conform to the rules of this transportation technology. In a very pivotal scene, in a place which seems like a street fair, his eyes catch the objects in the market, the materiality of human life, and he gets separated from his balloon. While he is looking at a painting of a young child playing with a toy, the balloon is facing a mirror, and as if it is seeing its incongruity with the world around it for the first time, he starts to leave this world. But at the same time, in a moment of realization, the boy finds himself enframed inside the painting, still and emotionless, and through a revelatory decision, he leaves this material world again to look for his balloon. This again has certain similarities to the tunnel scene in the movie The Wall, where after trying to play along with other kids, the main character suddenly realizes that he is sacrificing his individuality, and becoming an enframed member of the imposing system: Another brick in the wall.
Although this loneliness brings about imagination, and this imagination causes isolation, the movie explicitly clarifies that it is not a call for solitude. When Pascal is walking the street, he passes a lonely girl with a blue balloon, another individual, and both balloons obviously long for each other in that short scene. The loneliness and isolation ensure the individuality of the person. However, when the person unifies with their individuality, then every other individual is an option for camaraderie. While other kids are attacking Pascal, and enviously trying to steal his balloon, the lonely girl, is just helping him take his balloon back. When the group is trying to release Pascal of his individuality, the other individual is enforcing his very being. But these attacks never stop, and finally, the other kids steal the balloon. They don’t want to have it; they just want to destroy it. This is the picture of society many of us are closely familiar with; the society that doesn’t want our personal imaginative individuality, the society that is afraid of difference, and does everything in its power to abolish anything different. Although Pascal tries to save his balloon, during a 3-minute chasing scene inside the whimsical streets of Paris, the group of kids finally catch him. This is when he pleads his balloon to leave him and fly off to freedom, which the balloon refuses. This is the moment that the person no longer can endure the peer-pressure, and let his individuality go. And it is exactly here that those kids finally succeed in terminating the balloon.
The death of the balloon is probably the most impressive scene of the whole movie; exactly one minute of absolute silence. This slow decay of the balloon, and this silence, is the mourning of Pascal’s whole universe. From the beginning of this movie, music has been an important element in storytelling. The naughty minor scale melodies accompany every aspect of the emotional interrelations of the whole story. Thus, the absolute silence of the death scene illustrates an absolute absence of any feeling, an emotional demise. But this is also a liberation. A spiritual transcendence which in later scenes takes the literal form of an ascendance. What happens after this demise is an ontological epiphany because even if individuality is demolished, it was a part of the boy’s existence; the balloon had lost its equipmentality long ago; it was a transcendental presence. The redemption of this lonely boy emerges with all the balloons, from all over the city coming together to ascend him, take him away, from this unfriendly society. Redemption is an outcome of transcendence which itself was a result of the imaginative individuality. The boy soars up to the sky, where he gradually gets further away from the city, the big symbol of civilized life, the musical theme of the movie is being played, and he gets complete freedom from the institutionalised society.
Imagination is a dangerous thing. If you don’t have it, it haunts you when you see others do. Just like the balloon haunting the headmaster in this movie. It is a result of loneliness and a cause for isolation. Society looks down on it, and the adult world doesn’t understand it, and if it chases you (then again, like the red balloon chased the headmaster), society will judge you. If you let it go, you are entrapped in conformity, but if you keep it and accept the isolation, then you can reach individuality, which in the end redeems you to a state of transcendence. The more we move from our childhood to our adulthood in personal life, and from primitivism to technology in our civilization, the more we lose all these advantages. The ultimate question this short film poses is as simple as this: Are you ready to have the innocence of a child and pay the price for it, or are you just “another brick in the wall”?
“Thou little child, yet glorious in the might(Ode on Intimation of Morality, by William Wordsworth)
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?”