Frenchmen looked up in wonder last year as a big orange balloon carrying two passengers floated back and forth across the country. Photographed by movie cameras in an accompanying helicopter, the balloon whisked by the spires of the Strasbourg Cathedral, almost bumped into the Eiffel Tower, skimmed within a few yards of Mont Blanc, dipped down to mast level over the Riviera. In Paris last week the resulting film, Voyage in a Balloon, gave audiences a stunning cloud's-eye view of virtually every remarkable tourist sight in France.
Voyage is the work of Albert Lamorisse, already known for his prizewinning shorts (Bim, White Mane, The Red Balloon) and probably the most original moviemaker in France. Echoing the consensus, Le Monde's Jean de Baroncelli, dean of Paris film critics, wrote: Voyage is "a tale of a dream realized. Pure cinema. Above all, a ravishing spectacle." Wrote Author André Maurois: "A film for poets and philosophers."
Art & Accidents. The two-year production repeatedly ran into trouble. Lamorisse had to spend $180,000 for equipment to keep the camera-bearing helicopter from vibrating, had to get government permits every time his balloon went up or came down. More drastically, the shooting often endangered the lives of his stars, one of them his ten-year-old son Pascal (who at six played the boy in The Red Balloon). No trick photography was used. Once, the balloon exploded, and the occupants, including Pascal, narrowly escaped death as the basket plunged to the ground. Lamorisse reworked the script to make the accident part of the plot. Says Lamorisse: "Poetry is always an accident in cinema."
To avoid a mere travelogue, Lamorisse built his story around a Quixotic professor out to demonstrate that a balloon is the ideal means of transportation. At the last moment, his grandson talks his way aboard. The eventful flightthey follow flocks of exotic birds, drop in on a bullfightis followed by a supply car on the ground carrying the professor's comic assistant, a Chaplinesque caricature of gadget-addicted modern man, whose wine bottle is hinged within reach and who uses an automatic feeder so that he doesn't have to stop driving. One of Voyage's greatest assets stems from Lamorisse's color technique (he photographs in Eastman color and prints on Technicolor stock), which gives his film a Utrillo-like, ethereal aura.
Sorrow Is Out. Sipping Scotch and tinkering with his hi-fi in his Left Bank apartment under the surveillance of a cageful of doves, Lamorisse at 38 fits the description once given him as "a man continually on vacation." The son of a well-to-do family of Flemish descent, he did poorly in school, never considered any work worthy of serious pursuit until he discovered film making. He still writes and edits his films in his living room, with the help of his wife and within earshot of Pascal and his other two children.
Some critics believe that the success of Voyage, with its old-fashioned fantasy world, is further proof that France is getting tired of the often depressing, sometimes brutal "New Wave." Lamorisse concedes that he is against the trend toward "popular, banal tragedy," and his movies plainly seek escape from modern life in their concern with children and animals. Says he: "I'm happy to have been able to free cinema from earth."