Although the birth of film began as silent, sound now dominates the cinematographic experience. Irrespective of the genre or length of the film, the presence or lack of sound and music in a film very often helps build not only the narrative tension, but also the scaffolding for the composition. One excellent example of a short film that uses sound, especially music, to accentuate the mise-en-scène and composition of individual shots is Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956).
The Red Balloon has only a few words of dialogue, but it is not a silent film. From the very beginning, Lamorisse uses music to create an almost dream-like world into which the characters, as well as the audience, can immerse themselves. The soundtrack starts with the opening credits and continues throughout the film. The music is joyous and consists primarily of major keys and scales, reminiscent of music that is played at a fair. After all, the main character is a red balloon, and though usually silent, magical, and joyous, through the soundtrack, Lamorisse allows us to hear the balloon’s voice and thoughts. Lamorisse pairs the openness of the soundtrack with wide and medium shots that effectively depict the vastness of the world beyond Pascal, a young boy and the other protagonist in the film, and the relationship and struggles between him, the balloon and the environment. With this composition of music and filming even the little details of the everyday Parisian life seem heightened. For example, when Pascal is walking through the streets in the beginning of the film the soundtrack is overlaid with the sounds of city life. The immense grey buildings make the world captured by the frame seem daunting and oppressive, and even more so in contrast to the little boy’s small stature. Many of these wide shots also capture the semi-dilapidated and destroyed ruins of France, a historical reminder of the effects of the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War on the city of Paris. However these shots are brightened with the co-presence of Pascal’s brightly colored balloon and the joyous soundtrack.
Though the tune making up the soundtrack is utilized throughout the film, it is not always light and circus-like. At times Lamorisse alters keys and introduces variation of notes to echo or foreshadow the action and the mood. For example, in one scene, when Pascal unties his balloon from a lamp post, Lamorisse slightly changes the pitch and key of the soundtrack and incorporates minor scales into the original sound while adding 5th minor keys. These alterations create, arguably, the most dissonant sound one can obtain on an instrument, and in fact, in this case prime the audience for the upcoming scene in which the boy is bullied and the balloon is eventually punctured. As the balloon withers away the scene becomes silent as we, the audience, experience the balloon being popped as not only its death but also Pascal’s, and the music which has been their voices until now must necessarily end. The music returns once again and back to a major key only at the very end. It then crescendos so that it becomes the only sound one hears as Pascal floats away with many new balloons.
Although the soundtrack dominates the majority of the film, when the soundtrack is absent Lamorisse compliments the images with the sounds that surround the Pascal and his balloon. This change from strictly soundtrack to simply diegetic sound comes almost as a shock to the audience since the scene becomes attenuated compared to the scenes filled with the soundtrack. For example, when a group of school kids notice the balloon, their calls and screams increase in volume beyond what we may normally expect. We interpret this shift from soundtrack to diegetic sound as what the balloon is hearing. In fact, the sound of the screams appears to lure the balloon to them. The balloon is intrigued by their sounds and begins to taunt them playfully. Towards the end of the film, the children’s screaming and yelling become even more accentuated just before the final confrontation between them, the balloon, and Pascal. The emphasis of the screaming makes their aggression palpable and the eventual violence inevitable since they have “overpowered” the voice of the balloon.
In The Red Balloon Lamorisse shows us that sound does not have to be presented as dialogue in order to capture the intentions and emotions of a character. Rather, the careful combination of auditory and visual cues can fill the cinematographic experience with subtle messages and themes. In this way, the audience’s emotions are not constrained by the meaning of words, but rather, are shaped by the experience of the sound.