Coming up the stairs from the Paris metro station Ménilmontant in mid-May, something red catches my eye. The remains of a red balloon left over – if the nearby banner remnants are anything to go by – from a Macron campaign event.
It’s a strange portent. A kind of déjà vu of the déjà vu that I hope to encounter here: the red balloon floating through Ménilmontant’s streets in Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 Palme d’Or/Oscar winning Le Ballon Rouge.
In Le Ballon Rouge, a young boy, played by Lamorisse’s son Pascal, finds a bright red, helium balloon tethered to a lamppost on his way to school. He unbinds it and takes it with him. Arriving late because the bus won’t take him and the balloon on board, he leaves it with the school caretaker, uttering one of the film’s few scripted lines (“surtout, ne lâche pas”). In the days that follow, the balloon becomes a friend, following Pascal home and back to school, through the streets and staircase alleys of Ménilmontant and even to church with his grandmother. But it’s not long before the film’s early gaiety (friendly nuns sharing their umbrellas) turns on itself with indifference and then malice. His grandmother, the school’s headmaster, a church beadle and finally a gang of Conradian boys – the full body check of societal forces governing the child’s life – conspire to separate boy and balloon. Help (in the form of some magic realism) is at hand. But it’s a close run.
Within a formerly working-class part of the 20th arrondissement, the film’s landmark sites are recognizably intact. Here is the schoolyard behind (now) luminous red doors on Rue Henri Chevreau and not far away, the house in the Rue du Transvaal from whose windows Pascal’s grandmother banishes the balloon only for it to descend liltingly to the boy’s grateful embrace. The steps and forecourt of the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix are as stolidly calm and clean as they were in the film. Leaving the boulangerie on the corner of Rue du Transvaal and Rue des Envierges, where Pascal chats to the balloon, baguette-clutching customers set forth into the morning.
Tethered to the fabric of gentle, unexcited gentrification, the district bears all the hallmarks of middle-class aspirations. The parish priest making his way across the church forecourt, the polite Chinese saleslady in an upmarket knock-off handbag store, well-ordered, ethnically diverse groups of pre-school children chaperoned by young teachers, busy cyclists, Portuguese workmen adding the final touches of colour to a café – or the young man with a ponytail who has just taken over management of the now artisanal corner boulangerie and serves small, fragrant madeleines to mild-mannered Australian surfers? This is the mixed bag of Ménilmontant’s normality.
But it is not the Ménilmontant of Le Ballon Rouge. Lamorisse’s film turned place into vision. Transcending post-war realities, this is largely the result of the film’s genial cinematography, of monochrome blues and greys enlivened by odd flashes of colour, of dark alleys shot through with bright light that reflect a child’s playfully tragic perspective on a Darwinian face-off. But beyond the artistry there’s a powerful sense that the local identity nurturing Lamorisse’s vision, forfeited for better or worse over the past sixty some years, is a casualty as significant as any suffered in the film. The sandblasters have taken off the grime—and with it the poetic exuberance of scratching at surfaces to see what’s underneath. What remains, is surface.
Returning to Ménilmontant metro station, the withered red balloon still lies reproachfully on the flagstones, pretty much where I saw it some hours earlier. It was, after all, a déjà vu of what I found here: a tired symbol, emblematic of a country championing, albeit faute de mieux, the bland comforts of conventionality.
Le Ballon Rouge is available online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBSu1kWqieM&t=459s).
(watch it with a child, if you can).