'Red Balloon' and 'White Mane': Childhood Colored by Adult Cynicism

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

The average, hyperactive, plugged-in modern child is not likely to sit through the 1956 French classic "The Red Balloon" without a lot of fussing and whining. This almost legendary film, aimed at children and at adults who like to think they haven't lost their connection to childhood, is devoid of the usual trappings of today's kiddie cinema: no flatulence jokes, no aping the manners and language of infantilized adults, no spittle or snot or other fetish liquids of childhood. It is a cinematic love letter to a fantasy of Paris, seen through the eyes of a little boy who befriends a red balloon with all the wide-eyed, trusting innocence that a boy can shower on a puppy.

It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and it is a mainstay of many critic's top 10 lists. It is now being rereleased, paired with the 1953 "White Mane," another film by director Albert Lamorisse. Each work clocks in at under an hour, and it's good to see them side by side, even if the earlier "White Mane" (about a boy's love for a horse) feels a bit like a clunky trial run for the more accomplished and austere narrative exercise that is "The Red Balloon."

Almost everyone who has seen one of these films ("White Mane" is decidedly the rarer of the two) remembers Lamorisse's work fondly. Both films are about young boys and the dangers and possibilities of friendship. In "White Mane," the drama plays out in an idealized world of simple fisherman with nary a whiff of anything modern in its pastoral landscapes. In "The Red Balloon," the hero is a schoolboy (Lamorisse's son, Pascal), the setting postwar Paris, untouched by the war or anything remotely un-French. Both films are considered gorgeous fables, simple stories but pregnant with sad commentary on the fragility of innocence and the tragic pragmatism of the adult world.

Critics have favored these films not just because they are beautifully shot, but because their very spareness allows for a lot of intellectual imposition and interpretation. The red balloon may be a Freudian sign of burgeoning sexuality -- a reading made plausible when a little girl with a blue balloon wanders into the film for a brief suggestion of romance. The balloon may also be a sign calling attention to the unseen hand of the filmmaker -- as if the director is saying, hey, through the miracle of film, I can make any inanimate object into a viable dramatic character. The film becomes a meta-commentary on the power of film. You can go much further with these lines of thought. You can write a graduate thesis on the subject.

This sort of interpretation is likely very annoying to people who want to remember the films as simple and pure. But watch them again, and it's clear they are anything but pure. Lamorisse's Paris is basically photographer Eug┬┐ne Atget's glistening and empty city peopled by characters straight out of the old "Madeline" children's books. It doesn't exist, it didn't exist in 1956, and it probably never existed, except in carefully constructed French fantasies. And Lamorisse's vision of peasant life in the South of France, in the Camargue, never existed either. These films take place in a world of lies.

Innocent lies? Not necessarily. "The Red Balloon" may be the most seamless fusion of capitalism and Christianity ever put on film. A young boy invests in a red balloon, the love of which places him on the outside of society. The balloon is hunted down and killed on a barren hilltop -- think Calvary -- by a mob of cruel boys. The ending, a bizarre emotional sucker punch, is straight out of the New Testament.

Thus is investment rewarded -- with Christian transcendence or, at least, an old-fashioned Assumption. This might be sweet. Or it might be a very cynical reduction of the primary impulse to religious faith. In "White Mane," the sacrifice is even more explicit. A boy and his horse are hunted down by adult ranchers -- while a narrator makes vague promises of a better world to come.

The beautiful imagery of both films is deployed in support of a moral system -- a blunt promise of rewards for good behavior -- not much more sophisticated than that of Santa and the Easter Bunny. Ah, the time-honored tradition of adults indoctrinating kids in a worldview that will lead only to bitter disappointment, unless the kids refuse to grow up. Which seems to be increasingly the case.

If you're angry right now that the innocence of Lamorisse's message has been trampled beneath the boot of cynical criticism, good. That's the point. These are kiddie films, and adults shouldn't be there for the simple enjoyment of watching a story unfold. Perhaps the best adult response to these films would be critical detachment and a profound sense of relief: There they are, the old lies we tell kids, and thank goodness we don't believe them anymore.

There are perfectly worthy reasons to keep these films in circulation. Visually, they are masterful. And it's fascinating to see children's films in which children are not running the show, and there's no subversively sly adult meta-level filled with knowing jokes that fly right over the heads of the little ones. But in their very purity, in their resolutely adult vision of a child's supposed moral universe, these two films are profoundly manipulative.

Red Balloon and White Mane (72 minutes at Landmark's E Street Cinema) are not rated and contain peril and violence to animals.

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