Seconds into my first attempt to play Hangman with my then-young daughter, I suddenly saw the game’s gruesome stakes for what they were: guess wrong, and see your dad draw a man’s neck snapping. So on the fly, I invented the game of Sleeping Man, his gallows now a reading lamp, the whole of him slowly obscured as incorrect guesses led to sheets, a blanket, a pillow, slippers. Years later, my daughter found the real game in an activity book, and then she found me. Dad, she said, eyes wide, our game? He doesn’t sleep—he dies.
He does, and not so long ago, so did I, at least a little bit, when something like this happened again, but at a much larger, much more haunting scale. Another beloved childhood fiction outgrew the space we’d allotted it. But this time, I’m not quite sure what my daughter thinks, because I haven’t told her. I thought I’d try it on you first.
Because in this story someone really does die, and in spectacularly bizarre fashion. His name was Albert Lamorisse, the man behind my daughter’s and my favorite children’s book and film, The Red Balloon. My daughter is a teen now, too old to want, as she once did, this book read to her every night. But not too old to remember the promise I made to her all those years ago, that one day we’d go to Paris and follow, page by page, step by step, that balloon around Paris.
And so we did. You can, too. I’ve mapped out an entire route. It’s easy to follow, although I’ll caution you now, I’m not sure you should. Not all the way. Not with your child.
Because just off the end of the map, I found something. Another film, also beautiful.
And then a final film, which is terrifying.
This, then, is the story of a story, or how chasing a boy and a balloon came to involve Jackie Gleason, a Dutch magazine editor, three policewomen, the last Shah of Iran, and a game a father invented only to have its name changed, and for the worse.
Let’s go for a walk.
Alarmed, they all but ran away. I was so taken aback, my daughter had to explain: “Dad, what would you think if a stranger came up to you in a strange city, held out a children’s book and said, ‘See, here’s where we are’?”
The Red Balloon, which premiered in 1956, was Albert Lamorisse’s third and most successful film. He won a Palme d’Or at Cannes (for the first time since the festival’s inception, Le Monde reported, there was “l’unanimité des suffrages,” a unanimous vote) and an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (the only time a short film—it’s 34 minutes, most of them wordless—has been so honored).
The film stars Lamorisse’s son Pascal, then just 6, who is trailed by a bright balloon through a luminous Paris that’s gray below and blue above. Boy and balloon suffer a series of slapstick encounters until, pursued by jealous bullies into the scruffy Ménilmontant neighborhood, things turn dark.
So it made sense (to me, less so my child) that we climbed up to Ménilmontant on a dark, rainy afternoon. If you want to start where we did, take the 96 bus (which Pascal himself rides) up out of the center of Paris and hop off across from Church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix. That church: you’re going to have to get around it somehow, because Pascal’s world largely lies on the other side. Circle around the back (to the north) and you’ll pass the brightly lit Monte en l’Air Bookstore that seems to have been air-dropped from Brooklyn, complete with The Believer magazine poster in the window. Curl around to the front of the church, however, and you’ll encounter an intimidating flight of 54 stairs. Climb to the top and you’ll see the very same massive doors (to the east, not the odd purple ones in the center) that Pascal and his balloon were tossed out of during Sunday mass.
Thus spurned, Pascal decides to spend his Sunday offering at a bakery, a sensible decision that my daughter and I sought to echo by heading west down the Rue Julien Lacroix. Immediately you’ll sense, as we did, that this is no longer Pascal’s Paris.
And it’s not. In the 1960s, not long after The Red Balloon was filled, a slum clearance project tore through much of the area. Many of its tiny winding streets and tumbledown houses disappeared to make way for high-rise housing and a steeply terraced public park.
But press on, as we did, and head directly for that park. At the intersection of Julien Lacroix and the Rue des Couronnes, look north for the cobblestone walk leading through the gap in the green fence: now you’re in the park, at the foot of a long staircase that resembles one of The Red Balloon’s iconic shots, lamppost and all.
We did and soon met a group of Japanese students heading down. Certain such fellow fish out of water could only be there for the same reason, I excitedly flashed them my Red Balloon — of course I had the book along with me, and not just any copy, but the first-edition copy that I’d received as a child, the very copy I’d read with my daughter—and showed them how the staircase we were on resembled the one in the book.
Alarmed, they all but ran away. I was so taken aback, my daughter had to explain: “Dad, what would you think if a stranger came up to you in a strange city and held out a children’s book and said, ‘See, see, here’s where we are’?”
Where we were was Ménilmontant, in northwest Paris. Height equals light, and so lofty, shabbily picturesque Ménilmontant has long been a favorite of filmmakers, from Dimitri Kirsanoff’s infamous 1926 silent Ménilmontant to the much noisier 2002 Matt Damon film, The Bourne Identity. Your best bet at cinematically touring Ménilmontant as it once was, though, is Gene Kelly’s 1962 Gigot, starring Jackie Gleason as a mute, cat-loving, funeral-crashing handyman. (For more film notes, expand the comments at right.)
Gleason himself admired the very same Parisian bakery in The Red Balloon that we were bound for. But as we crested the stairs, three French park policewomen intercepted us. It wasn’t clear if the Japanese students had reported me. Or that the women were police: their blue jackets were labeled, “accueil et surveillance,” which literally translates to “welcome”—and, well, “surveillance.”
So I showed them the book. They shook their heads confidently: no idea. I showed them a picture that seemed to be taken right on the spot where we were standing. They shook their heads. One even burrowed into her jacket. It was getting cold. They had other things to surveil. But I was incredulous that they were incredulous and so held out the book again. The woman in charge now studied the pages carefully. Here was Pascal smiling at his balloon. Here was Pascal being chased. Here was Paris still recovering from World War II. She finally nodded, somber. “Ah, les juifs,” she said. The Jews. They were taken from here and killed.
I translated for my daughter. Her eyes widened.
“But the bakery is still open,” the policewoman said.
But it was not. There it stood, at the top of the stairs, at the corner of Rue de Transvaal and the Rue des Envierges, just as it had in the book—I was certain. But at this point, an extraordinary Dutch magazine editor named Piet Schreuders intervenes. Since 1975, he’s published volume after volume of an unclassifiable journal called Furore, attracting raves from the likes of R. Crumb and Matt Groening. For his latest issue, which he says he first started working on 23 years ago (and which was published about 12 years after the last issue), he researched The Red Balloon shot by shot. The result is a quite wondrous 104 pp. book of maps, charts and photos. All in Dutch, but no matter, because when I found Schreuders, I knew: here, finally, is a man I understand. An overdoer.
I emailed him to ask if we were in the right spot.
Yes and no, he replied. Yes, the bakery we were in front of was in the film, but only in the background. The bakery featured in the film was across the street, and that one was gone—not only to our dismay, he added, but Gleason’s: inspired by The Red Balloon, Gleason had planned a series of scenes at Pascal’s bakery. When he found it had been leveled, he built a replica in a French studio.
But not everything is gone. Follow us (as we followed Schreuders) around the corner to 15 Rue du Transvaal; the apartment building where Pascal lived is still there. The very window where the old woman puts Pascal’s balloon out? Still there.
And a decade after first reading the book with my daughter, five and a half decades after Lamorisse stood where we were standing now, that was victory enough for us.
If not for you, then head a bit farther down Rue de Transvaal. Just past number 16, duck into Passage Plantin. Doing so will require varying measures of bravery depending on the hour; it’s narrow, precipitous and not exactly inviting, but soon enough you’ll pop back out on the Rue des Couronnes. Turn right and then a quick left on the Rue de Henri Chevreau. Just before number 36, a prize: look up, and you’ll be treated to a vast, strange mural of a red balloon. The balloon is towing a man in a boat, which doesn’t make any sense, but then again, neither does towing your child around a semi-rough part of Paris in pursuit of a children’s book.
The Shah has been doing deals with filmmakers everywhere, in an effort to show the world that Iran is a modern, forward-thinking country. Even Orson Welles, who was slated to direct Gleason in Gigot until the studio said absolutely not, had a deal with the Shah.
And now, the part of the story my daughter hasn’t heard. The part with the Shah. The part where I wander too far, and so, too, Lamorisse.
Because it’s 1968, and Lamorisse is in Iran. He hasn’t known anything like the success of The Red Balloon since it premiered a dozen years prior, not even with a 1960 feature-length production narrated by Jack Lemmon, Stowaway in the Sky, wherein a boy named Pascal—stop me if you’ve heard this before—takes to the skies in a very large balloon with the help of his grandfather.
Iran has been doing deals with filmmakers everywhere, in an effort to show the world that Iran is a modern, forward-thinking country. Even Orson Welles, who was slated to direct Gleason in Gigot until the studio said absolutely not, wound up narrating a movie about the Shah. The Shah’s brother-in-law later helped finance Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind.
Welles’s involvement with Iran led to no end of trouble, but Lamorisse’s project went forward, and if the result was extraordinary, its price was even more so. Roughly an hour long and titled The Lovers’ Wind, the film sent Lamorisse into the air yet again, this time in a specially-outfitted helicopter rigged with a steadicam-like invention of his called “Helivision” (which will come as news to these folks in North Carolina). With endless, sweeping aerial shots, and narrated by the wind itself, the film is gorgeous to the point of being hypnotic.
The Shah did not like it. The film lingered on vast, beautiful landscapes sparsely populated but for traditional villages. Where was modern Iran? Where were the laboratories? The scientists? Computers? And especially, the Shah’s newest, largest achievement, the mighty Karaj Dam?
(And where was the red balloon? An answer’s coming, but first, we’ll do as Lamorisse did and attend to the impatient Shah.)
Fix the film, the Shah said.
Lamorisse didn’t want to—in particular, filming the dam would make for tricky flying, circumscribed as it was by power lines. The Shah was adamant, to the point of assigning his personal pilot to Lamorisse.
So Lamorisse went. He flew. He filmed. And then, just as he’d feared, the powerlines entangled them and they crashed.
He is 48 years old. He dies.
The filmstock survived, however, and eight years later, Lamorisse’s wife and none other than Pascal edited it based on his notes. It features all the long, lingering panoramas Lamorisse loved, and almost nothing the Shah wanted. Shots of palaces, yes. (“The palace was impressively…empty,” the narration intones as the camera wanders through one gilded, mirrored hall after another.) Shots of the dam, no. The Shah fled Iran January 16, 1979. Almost a month to the day later, Lamorisse became an Academy Award nominee once again, this time for Best Documentary.
So all the more piercing — and spectacular—is the seven-minute untitled film Lamorisse’s remaining Iranian crew assembled as a kind of postscript to the full-length documentary. It contains every last thing the Shah wanted, and somehow—the way the images are intercut, sped up and slowed down, brought close or pushed away — manages to indict the Shah for Lamorisse’s death with every frame. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, other than Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi (“Life Out of Balance”), which it anticipates by a good three years.
Out of context — like that mural featuring a balloon-towed motorboat, or like an addled dad pressing a children’s book on Japanese tourists—the film may not make much sense to anyone who doesn’t know the backstory of the Shah, of Lamorisse, of his young son who lit up a dingy neighborhood fourteen years before with an impossibly round, red, bright balloon.
But maybe you don’t have to know all that to appreciate the way the film frenetically intercuts scientists, test tubes, turbines, a flashing REACTOR ON light, mercilessly making the Shah wait, wait, wait to see the dam that killed the filmmaker. And then it comes, a long, wobbly shot of the dam with its bright blue water beyond. And again. And again. Each time, every time, the film looped so that the dam is always receding.
You don’t have to know Lamorisse’s story, but it helps, especially around the 2:30 mark, because right before a test tube begins to fill with what looks like watered-down blood, a man in a white coat reaches to the top of a skinny glass pipe. And there, apropos of nothing, or rather, everything, a red balloon briefly swells.
At some point, I’ll show this film to my daughter. Maybe, too, the recent photo that reveals that the dam’s power lines now warn modern pilots with what appear to be red balloons.
And maybe I’ll tell her that in 1957, just after The Red Balloon premiered, Lamorisse invented a board game, La Conquête Du Monde, the conquest of the world, which the game indeed went on to do, but only after its American publisher renamed it with a single word, Risk.
Not yet, though. Tonight, I just want to read the book one more time, and then draw up some sheets, some blankets, a pillow, and sleep.
Fair warning: a story like this can lead to a lot of dogged wandering, on- and offline. That said, for more about the film, visit the Criterion Collection. For some samples of Piet Schrueders’s amazing documentation of the film’s world, visit Furore. And for a glimpse into Lamorisse’s life in Iran, visit the Bidoun essay. And as noted above, if you want to visit this world in person, this is your map, which, while not as comprehensive as Piet’s list, has many more Red Balloon locations than mentioned in this essay.