The Red Balloon (1956)

One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards a few days away, we look back at some of the unlikeliest Oscar nominees, picking a different major category every day.

The Red Balloon (1956)

From the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, Hollywood often looked to Europe (especially France and Italy) as the cutting edge of movie style. It was during this period that the award for Best Original Screenplay became an unofficial arthouse category at the Oscars, earning nominations and even wins for all sorts of movies whose modern equivalents one couldn’t imagine getting nominated today, like Blow-Up or any of the three Alain Resnais films that received nods in the 1960s: Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year At Marienbad, and the less famous La Guerre Est Finie. (What, no love for Muriel?) Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman were multiple nominees, and François Truffaut, Jacques Tati, Éric Rohmer, Luchino Visconti, and—on the American side—John Cassavetes all got nominations as writers (rather than directors) during this time. Even if it was in only one category, the stodgy hive mind of the Academy seemed vaguely hip.

It was this period that produced one of the Academy’s unlikeliest winners—a Best Original Screenplay prize that went to an almost dialogue-free short film from France. The Red Balloon, which was written and directed by Albert Lamorisse, the creator of the board game Risk, remains the only short to break into the Oscars’ traditional categories, which are reserved for features. Running a mere 34 minutes, Lamorisse’s paean to childhood fantasy and the grayish, dilapidated charm of mid-20th-century Paris stars the filmmaker’s son, Pascal, as a young schoolboy who finds himself followed around by a big, shiny helium balloon that he freed from a lamppost. Shown in classrooms around the world for decades, it remains one of the classics of children’s film—and a filmmakers’ favorite, overtly referenced in everything from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Flight Of The Red Balloon to David Lowery’s recent Pete’s Dragon.

As with the best picture books, it’s hard to separate The Red Balloon’s scant narrative from its delicate and ingenious design. Lamorisse filmed entirely on location, mostly in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, in areas that would be demolished within the next few years. Against the charcoal-colored walls, shutters, and pavements of this district of disrepair, the balloon stands out in sharp contrast—a boldly simple visual idea that gives The Red Balloon its sense of fantasy, poignancy, and naïve beauty. It’s something that needs no translation. Perhaps it squeaked into its awards category on a technicality, being too long to qualify under the Academy’s mid-1950s short-film rules, but too much of an accomplishment to ignore. But considering the Oscars’ long-standing reputation for preferring quantity over quality, The Red Balloon represented a rare win for simplicity.

Availability: The Red Balloon is available on DVD from Criterion through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major streaming outlets.