Criterion usually releases all the Janus stuff, but for some reason (perhaps because they are shorts?) these two superb films from Albert Lamorisse have been released under the Janus imprint (along with Bill Mason's fantastic Paddle to the Sea), with nary a Criterion logo in sight. Similar to Criterion's Eclipse label, these releases are strictly bare-bones - no special features, making-of mini-docs, director commentaries, lead actor's third cousin's detailed itemization of yesterday's brunch menu - in short, the films are left to stand on their own, and what a duo to pick to do so. And while they are both ostensibly "children's films", they are much greater than that tag often implies - they are universal, and they are essential. Let's begin:
Crin-Blanc (White Mane)
dir: Albert Lamorisse, 1953
The story is simple - a wild horse in an arid region of France is sought by herdsmen, for seemingly no other reason than to show man's power over beast. A young fisherman Folco (Rock Me Amadeus?) also covets the horse, who has been dubbed White Mane, and who is also the alpha-horse of the pack. But Folco's motives are more innocent than that of the herdsmen - he sees the horse as a companion rather than a trophy. There are some pretty heavy themes in this deceptively simple film - issues of desire, greed, jealousy, trust, and above all, love, are all in there, which is precisely why this is the perfect "children's fim" - the antidote to the Wiggles. Instead of treating your little precious like the simpleton that they probably are, speak up to them for once and show them White Mane.
There are some terrific scenes of pure primal beauty - the face off between White Mane and the horse who has usurped the throne in his absence is awesome for its sheer sinew-gnawing ferocity; when White Mane is initially captured by the herdsmen and corralled, the frenzied whipping about of the stallion truly leads you to believe that this is indeed a wild thing, something that cannot be tamed, but that, as we learn later, can indeed be trusted and loved, and that, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, can love in return. We see more of this when Folco is dragged through the marsh and the mud by White Mane who finally slows then stops and stares back at his half-dead would be captor with almost sympathetic eyes; and when, in the simultaneously chilling and heart-rending finale, White Mane and Folco, clinging to each other, disappear into the waves, free at last, forever and ever. There are some truly eternal themes in White Mane, as well as in Lamorisse's next film...
Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon)
dir: Albert Lamorisse, 1956
Lamorisse got his start (much like Kubrick) as a photographer, and this film (and White Mane) really shows off his talent for creating startlingly beautiful, almost painterly, compositions. The Red Balloon is another simple story - a small boy finds a balloon one morning that begins to follow him, or sometimes mischievously desert him - only to return seconds later. That is the catalyst of the movie, which sees the boy on his daily journeys through Paris(?).
Again, as in White Mane, Lamorisse seems to take great joy in taking a simple story and very deliberately keeping it simple - on the surface at least. We run into very similar territory in The Red Balloon as we did in White Mane, thematically at least. In fact, one could be seen as a urbanized remake of a rural classic. In The Red Balloon, we have the boy (see: Folco), the greedy and desirous schoolchildren (see: the herdsmen), and the object of desire, the titular red balloon (see: White Mane). Along the way we also have some lightly comedic digressions into family life (both films), fear, disappointment, and finally, ecstasy.
Interestingly, both films end with the protagonist attaining true happiness through death in the Romeo and Juliet fashion - the choice to die by the side of a true love rather than to live alone in despair. This is less explicit in The Red Balloon than it is in White Mane, but the idea is there - the protagonist carried away in elemental fashion, beyond his control, and clinging with the most innocent, pure and sweet of loves to the one thing that truly makes his heart sing.
Both films come highly, highly recommended - the transfers on the Janus DVDs are pristine. These are films for everyone, for they both are beautiful, sad, and ultimately rapturous. Time well spent.
Interesting fact about Lamorisse - he is the creator of the boardgame Risk. Nerds bow down. Now, back to my fantasy baseball stats....