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'Red Balloon' drifts back to Cannes

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Fifty-one years after winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes, Albert Lamorisse's 34-minute children's classic "The Red Balloon" returns to the Croisette.

A restored copy of the 1956 film about a boy who befriends a balloon with a life of its own in the streets of Paris will be screened Saturday as part of the Directors' Fortnight sidebar. The film will unspool as a double bill with Lamorisse's 1952 film, "White Mane," the black-and-white tale of a boy in the marshlands of the Camargue in pursuit of a wild horse.

Since both movies still have strong appeal for children, local kids have been invited to attend the screening in the Croisette Theater. "We wanted to do something like we did last year for (Michel Ocelot's animated film) 'Azur and Asmar' when we invited children," says Olivier Pere, head of Directors' Fortnight. The screening of "Azur" was met with a huge ovation from the young audience.

French sales company Films Distribution spent more than $200,000 restoring Lamorisse's two films, to which it has acquired worldwide rights. "We wanted to bring back their original splendor. The red balloon had to be a glorious Technicolor red. And 'White Mane' was shot in magnificent black-and-white, so the grain and the grays had to be impeccable," says Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, co-chief of Films Distribution. The Paris-based company scored a hit a few years back on international sales of restored copies of Jacques Tati's classic films.

The Lamorisse movies are not available on DVD, though a rather scratchy version of "Red Balloon" can be seen in four parts on YouTube.

Having charmed generations, "Balloon" continues to influence filmmakers. Hou Hsiao Hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon," starring Juliette Binoche, which opened the Cannes sidebar Un Certain Regard on Thursday, is reflective of Lamorisse's work. "We programmed the restored copies before Hou Hsiao Hsien's film was selected. So it falls nicely as an occasion to discover the inspiration for that film," Pere says.

"It is a perfect double bill. The two together make up the length of a feature, and the sad tone of the first film is countered by the optimistic note in the second," Brigaud-Robert says. Films Distribution says it will insist on a theatrical release as part of its sales strategy in Cannes, and it already reports strong interest in the titles, not from rerelease companies but from mainstream foreign art house movie distributors and children's specialists. "The age of the films doesn't change what they are," Brigaud-Robert says.

On Saturday, the little boy with the red balloon himself -- the director's son Pascal Lamorisse -- will be on hand to promote the Oscar-winning picture. Lamorisse junior was 5 at the time of the shoot. "I didn't have a very normal childhood. People recognized me and just wanted to talk about the film," he recounts. He says it will be moving to see the movie return to the Croisette after so long, though watching himself onscreen as a boy prompts a strange feeling. "You're looking at a reality that's no longer the same. It's touching, there's an innocence," he says.

Eschewing an acting career, Pascal Lamorisse worked as a technician on films and has directed an as-yet unreleased movie. He also manages the rights to the films of his father, who died in a helicopter accident in 1970 while on a shoot in Iran.

Besides the rerelease of "Red Balloon" and "White Mane," Lamorisse is looking at a possible remake of the former destined for IMAX theaters. "Its length is just about right for the format," he says.

As if to underline that "Balloon" speaks to the youth of today's generation, Lamorisse's daughter Lysa will introduce the film Saturday, which happens to be her 10th birthday. What better present than to see Grandpa's oeuvre restored to its full glory?