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Playing the Ponies
Remind Me

White Mane

Alone among modern filmmakers, Albert Lamorisse built a towering international reputation on the basis of movies less than an hour long. The picture that first brought him to world attention was White Mane, which clocks in at a lean forty minutes and won both the Prix Jean Vigo and a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. Three years later The Red Balloon (1956) earned the highest Cannes prize as well as an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and recently the eminent Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien paid tribute to it with his lyrical 2007 feature Flight of the Red Balloon.

These remain Lamorisse's most beloved pictures. Both are cinematic tone poems focusing on a boy and an offbeat companion - a gorgeous stallion in the 1953 movie, a balloon with a mind of its own in the later film - and each conveys its slender tale with hardly a bit of dialogue, although White Mane is narrated by an off-screen storyteller. The films also share a concern with jealousy and conflict, confronting their young protagonists with rivals who want to snatch their unusual companions away. Both pictures have conclusions that don't so much resolve the human hero's problems as transport them from the everyday world to the domain of myth and mystery; yet each film is rooted very much in reality, set in real French locations - the rugged terrain of the Camargue region in White Mane, Paris's atmospheric Belleville district in The Red Balloon - and shot with a documentary-like clarity that reflects Lamorisse's experience as a photographer and ethnographic filmmaker earlier in his career.

White Mane,, known as Crin Blanc: Le Cheval sauvage in its native country, introduces the title character at the outset, running wild with his herd in the Little Camargue, a stretch of marshy land in southeastern France bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south and branches of the Rhône River to the east and west. Horses like White Mane have lived there pretty much forever, and they're favored by the local cowboys (who raise bulls for export to Spanish bullrings) because they make up for their relatively small size with a strength and suppleness bred into them by centuries of living in a swampy, irregular environment. White Mane is a handsome steed by any standard, but as the narrator tells us in the opening scene, he doesn't like people much - an attitude that doesn't change when cowboys catch him, pen him up, and try to break his freewheeling spirit.

The other main character is Folco, a fisherman's grandson who falls in love with White Mane at first sight and trails him when he escapes from the corral. When the cowboys fail to recapture White Mane easily they give up in disgust, telling Folco he can have the stallion if he can catch him. Folco manages to get a lariat around the horse's neck, only to be dragged through a tract of swampland and half drowned, losing White Mane in the process. Discord later arises between White Mane and his herd, however, and he decides to befriend the boy after all. Chased again by the cowboys, who set fire to the brush as a way of getting him within their grasp, White Mane gallops toward the sea with Folco on his back. The cowboys shout desperate warnings, knowing the boy and horse will die if they enter the sea's swift current. But the cries fall on deaf ears. "They swam straight ahead, straight ahead," the narrator tells us, "and White Mane, with his great strength, carried his friend, who trusted him, to a wonderful place where men and horses live as friends, always."

The great French filmmaker François Truffaut, who explored childhood in such highly regarded films as The 400 Blows (1959) and Small Change (1976), didn't much like White Mane, finding it empty of "emotional truth" and calling the animal hero a "counterfeit horse" in the worst Walt Disney tradition. An even more negative take appeared in a 2007 review by Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott, who wrote that White Mane and The Red Balloon take place in a fabricated "world of lies" and use beautiful imagery to support "a moral system - a blunt promise of rewards for good behavior - not much more sophisticated than that of Santa and the Easter Bunny," good only for "indoctrinating kids in a worldview that will lead only to bitter disappointment." So much for fables and fantasies as tools for encouraging children to experiment with ideas, interpret artistic experiences, and learn to think critically about the world.

More generous comments came from Truffaut's mentor, André Bazin, who praised Lamorisse for making White Mane simultaneously "a real horse that grazes on the salty grass of the Camargue and a dream horse swimming eternally." Bazin believed that photographic reality is cinema's best asset, but he forgave Lamorisse for making compromises on that score - using a stunt double (himself) for the scene where young Folco is dragged through the swamp, for instance, and using several horses to play White Mane over the course of the film. What most clearly separates Lamorisse from Disney, however, is the way the French director captures the essence of White Mane's behavior with a minimum of editing tricks, relying as much as possible on expert camerawork and the ability of his young leading man, Alain Emery, to treat his equine costar(s) with trust and affection. Emery's acting is lifelike in all respects, and although he didn't know how to ride a horse before Lamorisse hired him, his bareback riding is so natural and graceful that you'd think he had been doing it since before he could walk.

To my eyes, the most striking aspect of White Mane is Edmond Séchan's superb cinematography, which invests the Camargue countryside with a huge variety of details, nuances, and moods, from the intimidating toughness of its rougher areas to the luminous beauty of land covered with just enough water to cast a shimmering reflection of the boy and horse traversing it. Lamorisse's later years were marred by unsuccessful tries at feature filmmaking and he died tragically young - at 48, in a 1970 helicopter crash while shooting a documentary in Iran. But the visual beauties of his best short movies have kept his name and reputation alive, and White Mane is arguably the finest of them.

Director: Albert Lamorisse
Producer: Albert Lamorisse
Screenplay: Albert Lamorisse; adaptation by Denys Colomb de Daunant
Cinematographer: Edmond Séchan
Film Editing: Georges Alepee
Music: Maurice Le Roux
With: Alain Emery (Folco), Laurent Roche, Clan-Clan, Pascal Lamorisse, François Perie, Charles Guillaume, Alain and Denys Colomb de Daunant, Charles Fouhetty, Pierre Bestieux, Pierre Moureaux-Nery, English-language narration by Peter Strauss

by David Sterritt


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