These notes accompany a program of films by Albert Lamorisse and Edmond Sechan on August 8, 9, and 10 in Theater 2.
In my description of this week’s program, I referred to the films as “quasi-documentaries.” I used this phrase to call attention to director Albert Lamorisse’s efforts to enhance the authenticity of his films’ milieus. (I am also mindful of the fact that this was the “golden era” of French documentary, which produced Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s mind-bogglingly beautiful masterpieces The Silent World and World without Sun.) As we have seen with Robert Flaherty, Cooper and Schoedsack, and Arne Sucksdorff (and Cousteau, for that matter), documentary filmmakers habitually stray from strict adherence to actuality in the service of personal artistry. Lamorisse was unashamedly a storyteller, but one with a gift for enhancing a certain reality and encapsulating it as his private slice of the universe. His Camargue in Crin Blanc (White Mane) and his Paris in Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon) are depictions of realities available to all of us, but intensified by Lamorisse’s rhythmic and poetic imagery. He once told an interviewer that he “makes films to bring to life his childhood dreams.” So there is some paradox between the ethereal, dreamlike quality of the films and the grittiness of the locations—fairy tales bolstered by real-world reality.
White Mane clearly seems to have been influenced by Flaherty’s last film, Louisiana Story (1948), and it anticipates Carroll Ballard’s lovely The Black Stallion (1979). White Mane’s script was adapted by Denys Colomb de Daunant (1921–2006), whose Camargue estate (visited by the likes of Picasso and Hemingway) provided Lamorisse with his locations. Daunant would go on in 1960 to make his own film, Les songe des chevaux sauvages (Dream of the Wild Horses), a color documentary very much in the Lamorisse vein. While White Mane is visually beautiful, how one responds to it will certainly be affected by one’s predilection toward the anthropomorphizing of animals, but this was, after all, the century that gave us Kipling and Disney.In The Red Balloon, Lamorisse’s childhood dream requires us to ascertain human behavior in a piece of inflated rubber. 1956 was a banner year for balloons, as David Niven’s Philias Fogg travelled Around the World in 80 Days. Lamorisse’s fantasy was not quite so ambitious, having his balloon loyally follow his son, Pascal, but only to the fringes of Menilmontant. The film was, and remains, highly esteemed. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Oscar for best screenplay, even though it has virtually no dialogue (shades of 2011’s The Artist). René Clair said he would have traded his whole career to have made this one short film, and Francois Truffaut called it “one of the most beautiful color films ever made.” It would not be going too far astray to find echoes of Lamorisse’s Paris in Truffaut’s great debut The 400 Blows (made only three years later), Small Change, and many of his other films.
Edmond Sechan (1919–2002) went on to be a major cinematographer for decades, photographing films like Jean-Paul Belmondo’s That Man from Rio. Two of the first five films he shot were White Mane and The Red Balloon, and the short he directed, The Golden Fish, shows him to be a man clearly aligned with Albert Lamorisse, down to the use of a color in the title. (Sechan’s fish film was produced, appropriately enough, by Captain Cousteau.) The film, a cat-lover’s dream, is only slightly less believable than human-acting horses and brainy balloons.
Following The Red Balloon, Lamorisse seemed to be inspired by Jules Verne, making films from Fogg-like balloons. Pascal, after all, ascends to the heavens at the end of the film in a pretty impressive special effect. So, it was onward and upward. The next logical step was a technical innovation involving photographing films from helicopters, which he called Helivision. (Also, prophetically, he invented the board game Risk.) The director had once mused about the kind of films he would be making when he reached 80. Sadly, in 1970 his helicopter crashed while he was making a film for the Shah of Iran. He died at 48.
George Stoney was twice Lamorisse’s age when he passed away a few weeks ago. Stoney was known as “the father of public access television.” In this role, he was an articulate advocate of community collaboration in the production of documentaries, but he was also a very personal auteur. Among his films (scattered over six decades) were All My Babies, You Are on Indian Land, How the Myth Was Made (about Robert Flaherty’s production of Man of Aran), The Shepherd of the Night Flock, The Uprising of 1934, and, most recently, Flesh in Ecstasy. My colleagues, William Sloan and Sally Berger, mounted a tribute to him in 2009. George was a committed humanitarian and, judging by my dealings with him here at the Museum, an awfully nice man.