Wide Angle

The Final Flight of Albert Lamorisse

How did the director of The Red Balloon end up making a propaganda film for the Shah of Iran?

Albert Lamorisse in Paris shooting The Red Balloon.
Albert Lamorisse in Paris shooting The Red Balloon. Criterion Collection

Writing about him risks generating a one-man game of Trivial Pursuit: Whose film was the shortest ever to win a Best Screenplay Oscar? Who invented Helivision, a helicopter-mounted camera system used in Goldfinger? Who created what Francois Truffaut called the “most beautiful color film ever made”?

Who invented the board game Risk?

And whose death at 48 years old 48 years ago is memorialized by the rusting hulk of the same helicopter that killed him, which somehow still hangs in the air above a massive dam?

Oh, and who made one of the most beautiful and piercing children’s films ever made, The Red Balloon?

The answer, of course, is Albert Lamorisse.

The question is, what he was doing in Iran in 1970?

In a still from The Red Balloon, Pascal Lamorisse glides above a city, kept aloft only by the cloud of balloons he's holding onto.
Pascal Lamorisse in The Red Balloon. Criterion Collection

Albert Lamorisse was born in Paris in 1922. A restless student, he eventually found his way into photography and then filmmaking, and made his first film, a short documentary about an island off the coast of Tunisia, at age 25. Nine years—and 42 drafts—later came The Red Balloon, a 34-minute cinematic fairy tale about a young boy (played by Lamorisse’s then–6-year-old son Pascal) traversing Paris with a magic balloon. It won awards worldwide, including an Oscar for Best Screenplay (though it has hardly any words) and a Palme d’Or at Cannes. (It’s available from the Criterion Collection.)

In some ways, the film was an unlikely contender for children’s hearts, let alone awards. For all its obsession with color—Lamorisse inflated an orange balloon inside the red one to make the red really pop, so to speak—the film’s palette is gritty, and its pace is loose and improvisational, as though the camera were simply tagging along. But its ending, when Pascal is swept into the sky by a bouquet of balloons, is undeniably exhilarating, in part because you can sense the director’s giddiness at being aloft, too. This was a man who loved to fly.

And he did so in film after film. By the late 1960s, however, The Red Balloon had faded deep into Albert Lamorisse’s past, and no project since had equaled that short film’s enduring success.

Enter Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Film fanatic, Francophile, last Shah of Iran. Teetering atop his throne due to illness and civic unrest, the Shah and his authoritarian rule needed an image makeover at home and, increasingly, abroad.

The shah had admired Lamorisse’s 1967 documentary short, Versailles, and so his advisers decided to call on the French filmmaker to make a documentary highlighting a culturally rich and rapidly modernizing Iran. Though Lamorisse had misgivings—including a strange dream about drowning in the Caspian Sea—he headed to the Middle East. Traveling with him once again was Pascal, now 20 and working behind the camera.

Early in the project Lamorisse visited an American scholar in Tehran, Peter Chelkowski. Even though it’s been almost a half-century, Chelkowski and his wife remember Lamorisse well. Sent to see them by the Ministry of Culture, the filmmaker arrived in a light beige suit and a violet tie—“definitely not your standard color for a tie,” Chelkowski notes—and an equally strange idea: The film would be told, literally, from a bird’s-eye view. But Chelkowski, who was at the time researching Persian literature and theater, pointed out that Iran had few birds, particularly in the arid desert regions where Lamorisse planned to film.

So birds were out. But Lamorisse, as ever, wanted to fly. Chelkowski studied his shelves for inspiration, and found a book called Tales from the Four Winds. Thus inspired, Lamorisse decided that evening in Chelkowski’s apartment that the winds of Iran would be his film’s narrator. Perhaps inevitably for a man going about town in a violet tie, Lamorisse specifically settled on the “lovers’ wind,” a gentle wind said to bear the whispers of the enamored. Too cute? Not hardly, argued Lucy Raven and Tiffany Malakooti in Middle East arts and culture magazine Bidoun: “Lamorisse’s decision to include a first-person narrative from the perspective of the wind itself neatly sidesteps the ethnographic dilemma many of his contemporaries faced when charged with documenting Iran.”

Iran’s wind may have been the narrator, but Lamorisse’s Helivision technology, a kind of early Steadicam system he developed with the help of a marine gyroscope expert, was the star. As scholar Hamid Naficy observes in his definitive four-volume Social History of Iranian Cinema, “Instead of being forced to look down from its airborne perch, as was customary then, the camera could look ahead and around, filming the approaching scenes in leisurely fashion.”

That said, sometimes the effects of the helicopter are less leisurely than dramatic, as when it spins up tiny dust storms; and still other times comic, as when rotor wash knocks over a sailboat. The film occasionally feels like a lush National Geographic travelogue, and the wind proves to be a fitfully overwrought narrator, but the result is still extraordinary, even five decades later. If you’re not Iranian—and at this remove of years, even if you are—the sheer diversity of images astounds. Lamorisse’s camera finds Kelly green mountains. Blanched deserts. A bright red lake. Nomads. Marshes. Palaces, ancient and new. The camera picks out patterns on the earth’s surface—furrows, pipelines, terraced fields—and pursues them for so many minutes the eye no longer recognizes what it’s seeing. Until it does: at one point, the camera circles Zoroastrian sky burial towers where twisted corpses lie wasting beneath a merciless sun.

At the end of the film, a man and a woman in traditional Turkmen dress gallop horses across a vast landscape of deep green grass, while the narration declares that the lovers lived “happily ever after … with very few children.”

Odd. But overall, undeniably beautiful.

The shah and his advisers felt otherwise. The shah, Abbas Milani reports in his 2011 biography, “summarily dismissed it as having missed its mission,” which was not only to soften his image but also sharpen Iran’s. Lamorisse reluctantly shot additional “modern” footage of scientists, laboratories, college students, factories.

But one request he resisted: the Karaj Dam. A recently completed 60-story-tall concrete behemoth north of Tehran, the dam was emphatic evidence of Iran’s focus on the future. It was also a dangerous place to fly. Lamorisse was an accomplished pilot—he’d once flown a helicopter beneath the George Washington Bridge before a New York Times interview—and knew piloting a helicopter around a hydropower project girded with electrical wires would be risky. And he’d had that dream about drowning.

No matter: The Iranians assigned the shah’s own personal pilot to fly the helicopter. Lamorisse and his son climbed aboard.

The dam and its gem-blue reservoir shone fiercely beneath a blinding sun. The sight wouldn’t quite make sense intercut with the rest of the film, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be impossible: Lamorisse had an eye for color, and the blue was beautiful, and—

And then, after a few passes above the dam, power lines ensnared the aircraft. Pascal somehow leapt to safety, but Lamorisse and the pilot plunged to their deaths. Authorities left the rusting carcass of the helicopter hanging in the wires above the dam, an unsettling memorial that by all accounts remains to this day.

“His death was terrible,” Pascal told a Dutch newspaper in 2006. “I had to drive two hours through the desert to Tehran to tell my mother. She went into a depression; I felt I had to start playing the father’s role. That is hard when you are twenty.”

Even harder must have been to finish editing the film but Pascal and his mother, Claude, a former dancer who had long worked on Lamorisse’s films (she is credited on The Red Balloon as a “script girl”), stayed on the project, titled The Lovers’ Wind, for eight years, working from his notes. The Iranians submitted it to the Academy Awards, where it received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 1978.

But it’s another short Lamorisse film which his widow and son did not edit that makes for the eeriest viewing today. What’s more, Raven and Malakooti suggest that this brief work, a roughly six-minute piece awkwardly tacked on to The Lovers’ Wind as a preamble, “may be the single most lucid allegory for the failure of the shah’s regime.”

It was created by one of the film’s original co-producers, Mehrdad Azarmi, ostensibly to memorialize Lamorisse and, assumedly, appease the shah. (Or rather, the shah’s court, who reportedly cared more about “fixing” the film than the shah did. Gravely ill with cancer, the shah would die in exile hardly two years later.) The result is a frenetic montage of all the second-round footage Lamorisse shot: clip after clip of Tehran University’s nuclear reactor control room, plus test tubes, lab coats, university students, bottling plants, tool-and-die machines.

And finally, horribly, incredibly, the dam. Using film salvaged from the water, Azarmi included the final material Lamorisse shot: the bright blue reservoir, receding. Then another version of the same shot: the reservoir, the dam, receding. And again. Again. Five times the film flees the fate Lamorisse could not. Then it stops. No credits, just some flickering, then blackness, looking for all the world like The Red Balloon did whenever its last frame sputtered out of a 16 mm classroom projector and onto the take-up reel.

When official copies of Lamorisse’s film were screened in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, the preamble and other “modern” elements, including shots of the shah’s gaudy palaces, were stripped out, “producing,” Naficy writes, “a film that may have been closer to Lamorisse’s original conception and endearing him to its postrevolution audiences in Iran.” Indeed, it was featured at the Fajr International Film Festival, Iran’s answer to Cannes, in 2016; a festival press release called it “a visual nostalgia for each Iranian.” Naficy notes that it’s been popular among expatriate Iranians for years.

There’s a moment of deep, if bizarre, nostalgia here even for those who aren’t Iranian. Two and a half minutes into that samizdat preamble, the camera enters a laboratory and traces a snaking system of test tubes. A white-coated scientist in heavy horn-rimmed glasses appears, his back to us. Then he reaches to the top of the frame to attach something to a valve.

Whereupon, apropos of nothing, or everything, blooms a bright red balloon.