The Red Shoes December 22, 2017
2 Hrs., 14 Mins.
And so is the film which serves as her acting debut, the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger-directed The Red Shoes (1948). Just as ethereal and captivating as its star, it is a dance melodrama of astonishing color and even more astonishing intensity; it is a backstage soap opera that has the fierce visuals and emboldened emotions to match its steaming love triangles, rumbling professional frustrations, Shakespearean tragedies. It is a work of pure cinema. It is a product of finely tuned artistic passion.
It was also the peak of Powell and Pressburger’s professional partnership. Though the filmmakers worked together for more than three decades – their collaborations began in 1939 with The Spy in Black and ended with 1972’s The Boy Who Turned Yellow – most consider their run of films in the ‘40s to have been their golden years.
While they’d sometimes diverge from their signature formula, their movies were, and continue to be, recognizable for their sublime photographic techniques, their charged subject matters, and a general refusal to stick to a status quo perpetuated by the studio system across the pond.
None of their best features were ever so simple. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) was a nearly three-hour Technicolor epic; Black Narcissus (1947), which orbited around the lives of nuns setting up shop in the Himalayas, dealt with religious guilt and societal alienation. Usually, the influential cinematographer Jack Cardiff would be employed to help buoy and color the material, making for movies as thematically profound as they were visually so.
The Red Shoes makes for a summation of what Powell and Pressburger had achieved, both artistically and cerebrally, up to that point. It encapsulates their propensity to prove that yes, you can pack the emotional punches of a lifetime into a single film. It boasts their proficiency in visual storytelling, not just in terms of being able to pictorially move the plot forward without a hint of dialogue, but also in part to an ability to give additional dimension to characters just through the way they’re photographed. Not a thing about The Red Shoes is undernourished; everything is urgent, vibrant.
That Powell and Pressburger would never again make a film together that would see such extraordinary success both critically and commercially was perhaps an inevitability. Once you achieve a sort of perfection usually achieved just once or twice in a generation, an inability to retain public devotion as a result is not uncommon. When you’ve made a feature film as perfect as The Red Shoes, where do you go next?
It deposits so much reinvention within a story that, anywhere else, might be routine. It is about the young dancer Victoria Page’s (Shearer) rise to the top of the ballet chain, and how her complicated relationships – with Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the Svengali-like director who discovered her, and Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the wide-eyed composer who loves her – ultimately destroy her.
Much about The Red Shoes could be billed formulaic. The first act is mostly about the discovery of Page (Lermontov sees her performing in a local stage adaptation of “Swan Lake” and decides that this is the girl), and the preparation for The Red Shoes, Lermontov’s latest production. The last is about Page’s grappling with her newfound fame, and her eventual realization that, in her era of living, being so talented and so beautiful can come with its setbacks. Apparently, you can’t have it all if you’re an accomplished ballerina who also wants to have a love life.
But so much of what Powell and Pressburger do here lifts the film from its initially cut-and-dried foundations. The most spectacular of their innovations is the breathtaking, 17-minute dance montage that appears after the rehearsal drama finishes. Subtle, too, is their way of giving extraneous dimension to these otherwise cutout characters through visual depiction alone.
But first let’s talk about that ballet sequence which, in addition to being the centerpiece of the film, is one of cinema’s great achievements. It was a difficult, complicated shoot, employing 53 dancers (most of whom had to glide about the concrete stage for hours upon end) and utilizing 120 of art designer Hein Heckroth’s paintings, ultimately taking a mind-numbing six weeks to complete.
Shearer herself wasn’t so fond of the experience: She couldn’t stand Powell (“He was very difficult with actors,” she told writer Brian McFarlane in 1997’s An Autobiography of British Cinema. “He didn't give any of us detailed direction and, perhaps it's unkind to say this, I don't think he could.”), and found her ankles swelling from the rigorous production.
But the fruits birthed by these labors appear effortless. The sequence itself effortlessly brings the original Hans Christian Andersen tale to hypnotic life, full-bodied in its color and mesmerizing in its dancing. It begins on the stage, but, as mimicked by musical directors aplenty (most often by directorial team Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen), changes setting and costumes to better immerse us inside the story being told. Cardiff’s camera fluidly swirls about the action, exquisitely capturing the nimble movements of these slender bodies and the sights and colors surrounding them.
We can feel Powell and Pressburger’s presence lingering in every shot, particularly in ones that find the story of the overreaching film extending into this metafictional sequence. Numerous photographic detours directly inform us of Page’s growing psychological turmoil, and they’re blended into the centerpiece in such a way that makes it a conceptually stunning hybrid of art and the influence the performing of art can have on a person.
In this montage, Shearer’s presence becomes especially powerful. In previous scenes, we’re not so sure what to make of her: as previously mentioned, her atypical screen persona is one to which we don’t immediately adjust. But in this ballet sequence, everything that Powell and Pressburger saw in her in the year it took for them to convince her to star in the film is apparent: she’s meteoric, with a face as expressive as her flexible body. After the 17 minutes conclude, The Red Shoes’ tension amps up a couple notches, progressively wondering what Page is going to do with herself now that she’s so quickly reached the top. (Her role in Lermontov’s realizing of The Red Shoes obviously makes
her a star.)
Her romance with Craster proves to be more than a fling, and they get married. This incurs the wrath of Lermontov, who allows his leading lady to work with other dance companies but contractually has prohibited her from starring in any other production of “The Red Shoes," which is the work she fancies the most. It also arouses a certain resentment from Craster, who fears that his new wife might prefer her art to him.
These characters are not especially well-written (another one of Shearer’s later complaints about the movie was its leaning toward obvious melodrama, which is valid), but they become three-dimensional when lensed by Cardiff and when Powell and Pressburger opt to simply study their facial twitches and bodily jerks.
After the camera silently analyzes Page before she becomes a star, dressed to the nines and dependably gussied up, we gather from the multitude of shots gazing at her mid-daydream that she’s never struggled a day in her life, and, as such, the ultimatum eventually brought on by Lermontov and Craster could plausibly ruin her.
The way Cardiff’s camera highlights Craster’s rumbling eyes and cracked but still vaguely porcelain skin helps establish him as a young thing still figuring out what he wants out of life and how to best represent himself. When he experiences his first real love with Page, we understand why he’s so anxious about losing her.
But the camera is most perplexed by Lermontov, who’s conceivably a villain and yet comes across as a damaged human desperately afraid of a weakened sense of power. Cardiff accentuates Walbrook’s greying sexiness, but his lens also captures more than a few wrinkles peeking through the stage makeup. From this we gather that Lermontov is so controlling not because of an unspoken love of Page, but because he can sense that he’s growing older, and that not even intimidation can cover this truth. The thought of falling victim to the stereotype that a director loses his touch with age terrifies him. So acutely aware of Page’s star power, he knows that her slipping from his grasp could quite possibly take away one of his nine lives. His unwillingness to relent is understandable, if cruel.
The corporeal fervor displayed helps make The Red Shoes’ story come across more like a classic tragedy than a dated quasi-ménage à trois weeper, too. If Cardiff’s photography weren’t so fantastical, and if Powell and Pressburger didn’t so convincingly apply the melodramatic bent like a jungle-red nail polish, perhaps we’d be yelling at the screens as viewers of 2017 that Page should abandon these toxic men and embark upon a life and career of her own. With the acclaim to back her, she could easily pack her bags and become a major success anywhere. But because everything in The Red Shoes is so delirious, from the performances to the color to the design, we’re convinced of the seemingly superfluously tragic ending. It works here.
And the film continues to endure. Like almost every other movie Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made in the '40s, there remains to be nothing like it. (Though some might contend that ballet-centric movies like 1977’s Suspiria and 2010’s Black Swan come awfully close to reaching its same level of transcendence.) And that’s because so few movies are as rapturously cinematic; every shot exhibited in The Red Shoes displays a meticulous, distinctive craftsmanship that stands the test of time. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) or Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), it is as glorious as it was the day it came out. Time is on its side, even when the latter’s particularly cruel to its central characters. A
hen compared to other actresses popular during her era, the acclaimed performer and ballerina Moira Shearer makes for an unusual beauty. Her lips are as thin as her penciled-in eyebrows; her skin is ghostly and freckled. She is small, delicate; a gust of wind could whisk her away. But she carries herself with a certain sort of elegance. When she speaks, we believe her. When she dances, she becomes a flame-haired gazelle, impossibly graceful. She is beautifully unconventional.