I saw my first French movie at the age of ten. It was a bitterly cold winter's day, and I sat with classmates in the odd but glorious little bijou theater in Baraboo, the exuberantly gilded Al Ringling. The Al Ringling is supposed to be a tiny replica of a theater in Versailles. What Versailles is doing in cow country, I don't know; but I've always enjoyed the place.
The double bill that Saturday matinee was WHITE MANE and THE RED BALLOON, both directed by Albert Lamorisse. It should have been called the Killer Bill. At first the other kids and I were just having a typical afternoon at the movies. There was a lot of boisterous climbing over seats in the dark, hissed arguments, fighting over arm rests, and a strong smell of funky winter coats and barn boots, as well as a constant hail of flying goobers. But then we started to actually watch the film. I've never really recovered.
WHITE MANE takes place in the Camargue, which is a harshly beautiful region of France, on the sea. A brave little boy, Folco, befriends a gorgeous wild stallion. White Mane is the glittering silver of moon and stars and sea foam. Folco defends the horse against greedy, brutal cowboys who would break the animal's proud spirit, use and destroy him. The cowboys start a fire to trap White Mane. He barely escapes. He's forced into a savage fight with another stallion for dominance, loses and almost dies. This horse goes through more suffering than the whole cast of Les Miserables. Throughout, the boy Folco (always dressed in white) does his best to defend him. In the end, after a terrifying chase Folco and his beloved horse are backed against the wild sea by the cowboys who want to trap them. Because we in the audience were Americans, we fully expected some version of the cavalry to thunder up and save them. In our movies, it always did. But instead, the French boy on his French horse wheels his magnificent stallion away from their tormentors and rides straight into the sea. Not only is there no land in sight, but we slowly realized they would have to swim across the Atlantic to find any. The camera follows the struggling pair until the stallion's snowy mane disappears--inevitably, beautifully, agonizingly--into the sea foam...
Soft little voices could be heard throughout the theater. "Where--where are they going?" "Are they...DEAD?" There were sobs, many of them, and the loudest was mine.
We perked up a little when the next film appeared: THE RED BALLOON. Oh, this was more like it! We'd swoop and soar on a jolly red orb, and forget all about Folco, who was our age, glugging the icy grey waters at the bottom of the sea.
The French boy in THE RED BALLOON wore a tragic little grey sweatsuit throughout. Young though we were, we noticed that he was the only one of the children who was dressed this way. His home life with his cranky grandmother sucked. And he was heartbreakingly isolated. He had no friends, not one. The other children were really mean to him, even for the French. Then one day he finally found a friend, a big red balloon which followed him, and which was so sensitive to his moods that they ran and danced and sang together. They were soulmates. We sighed with relief. Thank God he wasn't alone. Now he had this superbly bouncy and upbeat red friend. But the mean children hunted them down. They punched the fragile little boy, and pricked--killed--the beautiful balloon. It deflated before our eyes, and lay dead on harsh stones. And the "happy ending" consisted of the little child in his grey sweatsuit being lifted up to heaven by a cluster of balloons.
Once again soft little voices arose in the theater: "Where--where are they going?" "Is he--DEAD?" And more sobs. I staggered outside, glazed-eyed, having undergone my first aggravated battery and sophisticated sucker punch at the hands of European cinema. Worse, somehow I knew I would never be able to forget White Mane, or the all-too-human red balloon. And I never have.
Eight years passed. I went to a college which had a very, very serious Film Society. Film critic Mike Wilmington went to the same college, and has written about movie discussions which ended with members throwing hot coffee in each other's faces, or rolling on the floor searching for strangle holds. My sophomore boyfriend, whom I'll call Wally, cultivated his cinematic tastes like fine orchids. For example, he thoughtfully described an ex-girlfriend by saying, "She has this wild mane of black hair, like Stefania Sandrelli in SEDUCED AND ABANDONED." He also mocked Ingmar Bergman as "Swedish chicken fat," but not very loud.
Wally told me that my ignorance of fine European film was barbaric. We would go see JULES AND JIM that very night. And we did. For the first time I saw Jeanne Moreau in the role of Catherine. Catherine is a born muse. She has a subtle, fascinating smile which ensnares the friends Jules and Jim with its mystery. "Where does that smile come from," these European men wonder, in their sumptuous ponderings, "what does it mean?" ("Who the fuck cares?" one American girl in the audience thought, but didn't say.) Catherine breaks the hearts of both Jules and Jim, not once, but many times. She marries Jules on a whim, is the worst mother since Medea, flares through the movie like a psychotic comet. In the end, when Jim tries to escape her, she murders him and herself by driving off a bridge--still with the same mysterious smile.
As we left the theater Wally raved about her: "Oh man alive, Catherine is the queen of everything, her smile, those eyes, that little song she sings--"
"She's an evil bitch!" I protested. "She ruined their lives. She's a murderess--"
"She's a REAL WOMAN," Wally sighed adoringly. "American girls just don't have that subtle femininity."
I dumped Wally. And that evening I wanted to dump Catherine and Jules and Jim, and White Mane and the Red Balloon too. But I never did, because in their arbitrary, violent, and often exquisite ways, they'd already invaded my bloodstream.