After Parasite’s surprise screenplay win in 2020, and appearances by foreign films in both Screenplay categories at the 94th Academy Awards, hopes were high that the excellent work by writing-teams Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe and Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier would be recognised. But, with two largely conventional choices taking home the awards, it appears that the one-inch barrier of subtitles still present a rather large hurdle to Academy Voters.
All the more miraculous then, that all the way back in 1957 Albert Lamorisse managed not only to have his film Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) take home Best Original Screenplay despite its language-barrier, but also in spite of the fact that the film is 35-minutes long. If you follow the Academy Awards much at all, you’ll know that the Shorts categories go through a great deal of undo flouting. They are not considered on the level of value or importance as the features nominated amongst them, and there is never cross-over between categories. So much so that The Red Balloon remains to this day the only short film ever to win in a non-short category.
So, what made the film so remarkable, particularly in its writing? First, a description: A young boy named Pascal goes to school in Paris. He keeps a large, helium-filled red balloon by his side most of the time and enjoys its company more than that of kids his age. Before long it becomes clear that the balloon has a mind of its own, following him around and sometimes getting him into trouble (the balloon isn’t allowed at school, at home or at church, but usually finds its way in nonetheless). One day a gang of older boys swarm Pascal and stomp the balloon to tatters after using a slingshot to bring it down. Suddenly, every balloon in the city takes to the sky, surrounding Pascal so that he can grab onto their strings and fly off over the rooftops of Paris.
Once you start watching the short, the first thing you’ll notice is that, counterintuitively for a screenplay winner, dialogue is kept to a minimum. In the case of this foreign film, that may have been a net-plus, but it also highlights the purity of storytelling and childlike wonder the film trades in. Just as Pascal at first takes little notice of the colourless streets of post-war Paris, and the unhappy, cruel or otherwise cold occupants that leave him isolated, so too does the film aim to sweep you up with the power of its own imagination.
The Red Balloon leans into simplicity to communicate its themes, a wise decision for a short film, by keeping the literal straightforward so that the audience has room to focus on the allegorical and, more importantly, to appreciate the universality of its images. Ask a film-scholar and they may highlight the Christ-parable of sacrifice and spiritual rebirth through the compassion of others. Ask a child and
they’ll have gotten the gist of it.
Though it couldn’t have been foreseen at the time, this approach to children’s film-making has held firm as the best way to engage children who respond most to stories with clarity and visual splendour, while reaching their parents who know a great story when they see one (no matter how simple, French or short it is).