The Red Balloon

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Solitary boys who find unlikely companions are the focus of The Red Balloon (1956) and White Mane (1953), two hauntingly beautiful fables from French filmmaker and photographer Albert Lamorisse (1922-70). Long out of circulation, these shorts have been lovingly restored under the supervision of Lamorisse's son Pascal, who appears in both films.

The Red Balloon (34 minutes) and White Mane (40 minutes) are visual stunners, but it's their sense of wonder that really enchants. The little-known Lamorisse had an amazing eye as well as an unerring sense of how children can effortlessly incorporate their imaginations with the all-too-real world around them.

The elusive quality of whimsy — just think of how many children's films aim for it and fail — permeates Balloon, where 6-year-old Pascal Lamorisse learns that an inanimate object can be a boy's best friend. After finding a giant red balloon and carting it around Ménilmontant (a hilly neighborhood at the outer reaches of Paris), this schoolboy discovers that his new sidekick has a will of its own, and a mischievous streak.

Lamorisse shifts from scenes that capture the feel of Paris in the 1950s to flights of fancy with seamless confidence. The restored Technicolor really makes the red of the balloon pop, its vibrancy contrasting sharply with the somber buildings.

There's a minimum of dialogue in The Red Balloon, which makes it surprising to note that it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. What little is said is subtitled, but newly written English narration (read by Peter Strauss) helps set the stage for White Mane, which complements Balloon at this special screening.

Shot in silvery black and white, with the feel of a nature documentary, it follows the wild horse White Mane, who roams the marshy river delta of La Camargue in southwest France. (The area is now a nature preserve.) Pursued by ranchers who want to tame him, White Mane also captures the attention of a young fisherman (Alain Emery).

As comfortable as Lamorisse is in Paris, he's even more at ease in La Camargue, capturing this ancient way of life with immediacy and verve. White Mane is meditative one moment, action-packed the next: Exquisite images of equine bonding are followed by a frightening battle between rival horses and extended chase scenes.

What's played primarily for laughs in The Red Balloon is deadly serious in White Mane, as each boy struggles to maintain his new alliance, and savor that first taste of freedom.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 2 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 23-25. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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