The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

I caught “The Red Shoes” on TCM the other night and just watched it on a whim.  Call me a pompous heterosexual pig, but I wasn’t gonna watch a movie from the ‘40s about a ballerina and her love for a composer any other way, even though my previous encounters with Michael Powell, “The Thief of Bagdad” and “Peeping Tom,” were enormously impressive.  Well whaddya know, I like “The Red Shoes.”  No, I fucking loved “The Red Shoes.”  During a time when Hollywood films and their screenplays were at their most contrived and clichéd, leave it to the Brits to make a masterpiece like this.  Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay is incredibly intelligent and free of much of those hackneyed dialogue and situations that plagued Hollywood’s movies, and oh, there’s the little matter of this being one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.  Well thank god I got over my insecurities over watching a so-called chick flick from the ‘40s, ‘cuz “The Red Shoes” is just about flawless.

The story’s pretty much just as I described: a ballerina falls for the man who composes the ballet that makes her famous, while at the same time dancing for an impresario who’s obsessed with making her a star.  So simple on paper, but portrayed so naturally and gracefully, in a way that really was far ahead of its time.  At the center of it all is…what, a love triangle?  No, I don’t think you can call it a love triangle, exactly.  Victoria the ballerina and Julian the composer love each other, sure…but then there’s Boris Lermontov, the impresario.  What the hell do you make of this guy?  Whatever his motive (if he even has any), one thing’s for sure, he’s a piece of work.  I suppose you could call him ‘obsessive’ as my cable company’s plot description did, but at least at the outset, any kind of obsession with Victoria (or Julian, perhaps?) is subtle.  He’s charming and suave, but almost in a fatherly kind of way, always well-dressed, and certainly seems to have his company’s best interests at heart.  But then there’s the little things that clue you in that something’s not quite right with this guy – refusing an exhausted Victoria a glass of water practically as an afterthought, forcing (or through his charm, merely suggesting) Victoria to listen to the ballet’s score at all hours, even while she’s eating (“nothing matters but the music!”), enticing a now-happily married Victoria with the possibilities of a grand return to the limelight.  This man’s neuroses and obsessions with his lead ballerina and the man she loves are so subtle, hidden so well behind a polished, charming exterior, until he can’t contain it anymore and he goes into full-on Robert de Niro-as-Jake La Motta mode.  There’s the mirror break, his obsessively trying to convince Victoria to dance again as he and Julian act as her two consciences, one on each shoulder, and that look of jealousy, rage, despair, and disappointment all rolled into one when he first learns that Victoria and Julian are seeing each other.  What’s this guy’s angle?  Does he long for Victoria and become wildly jealous when she falls for Julian?  Does he want to experience fame and success vicariously through her?  Is he just obsessed with his ballet company succeeding, with her as the headliner?  You can’t know for sure, which is why this isn’t a run-of-the-mill love triangle, but something much more psychologically complex and thought provoking.  To try to read this man and that haunting and disturbing face upon the big revelation is both enticing and impossible.  This is a great performance by Anton Walbrook.

Surprisingly little screen time is given to the actual love story between Victoria and Julian, but what we do see is a touching, plausible courtship, with nice chemistry between Moira Shearer and Marius Goring.  But I think there’s so little time spent on the actual romance because the main focus of this movie is on one thing: Victoria.  Victoria, and how she sees the world around her.  To pull that off, this movie needed a hell of an actress giving a hell of a performance, and Moira Shearer fits the bill.  Powell considered her a natural for the screen (it helped in this case that she was a professional ballerina), and in many ways she’s just that (which makes it all the more disappointing that she decided to appear in so few films after this).  Some of her dialogue delivery might be stilted or even irritating, but the natural part comes in her expressions, her face, her eyes.  When she learns Lermontov has given her the lead in “The Red Shoes,” her smile lights up the screen.  When she’s dancing, she’s carefree and in her own world.  When she’s being torn between Lermontov and Julian, between fame and love, she’s in a complete panic, her eyes widening to ungodly levels in an astonishing extreme close-up.  Victoria runs the gamut of emotions as she experiences the sublimest of the sublime (fame, love), the lowest of the low, and everything in between, and Moira Shearer, her face in particular, is like a mood ring with a different emotion given off every few moments.  If Anton Walbrook’s great performance is in the subtlety and the deceptive charm, then Shearer’s great performance is in the eyes.

The movie’s all about Victoria and her moral quandaries, all brought about by mixed signals from this, the wild world of…ballet dancing.  Yes, “The Red Shoes” puts quite the emphasis on the world of ballet dancing, on every nook and cranny of it, thoroughly establishing it as a way of life – one with ups and downs that Victoria must juggle and contemplate in deciding what’s most important in her life.  What I really liked about this movie, especially in its first half or so, was how it took its time, never rushed headlong into the plot, but sat back and simply showed us every aspect of what goes on backstage at a ballet rehearsal.  The pace is incredibly leisurely, as a number of scenes simply have the camera move from one part of the stage to the other as we witness the everyday life of dancers, the crew, the orchestra, Lermontov, and everybody in-between, as they practice or chit-chat or this and that.  I suppose it takes away from time that could’ve been spent getting to know the really important characters like Lermontov or Victoria or Julian, but this is all here for a reason.  At this pace, we’re thoroughly ensconced in this world that Victoria now finds herself in, seeing everything as she would see it, from the mundane to the awe-inspiring.  And, with such ordinary, everyday moments, we can see that the Lermontov ballet company, at least when it’s not quite show time, is a business – an ordinary, mundane business that requires a lot of details and grunt work to get working.  Not quite as glorious as the innocent, wide-eyed Victoria might be led to believe, eh?  Maybe not quite worth all the fame? Maybe more worth it to drop it all and ride off into the sunset with Julian?

Well, tell that to Victoria once the curtains go up.  Things might be mundane and commonplace between rehearsals, but once Julian’s version of “The Red Shoes” starts and Victoria’s able to do her thing, this movie treats us to one of the most spectacular music sequences in any film.  Hell, it’s one of the most spectacular sequences of any kind in any film.  For about fifteen minutes non-stop, the entire narrative of this movie is brought to a halt so that we can see the totality of the ballet-within-a-movie…but not exactly.  We don’t see what the audience sees, we see what Victoria sees, what she feels.  The Hans Christian Andersen story of a magic pair of shoes that make a girl dance herself ragged is transformed by Julian’s music and Victoria’s dancing into a lovely ballet, and in turn, Powell & Pressburger transform that lovely ballet into a thing that is completely sublime, and dreamlike, and sensational.  With seamless special effects, cinematography, and set design, this is one of the most visually arresting and convincing “dream / fantasy sequences” I’ve ever seen…and it was made sixty years ago.  How ‘bout that?  Dancers turn into flowers and birds and back into dancers, with the grace of watercolors.  Victoria dances alongside a life-sized, man-shaped sheet of paper that turns into a man seamlessly, and just as seamlessly back into paper.  The audience that Victoria dances in front of transforms into a torrential sea.  A simple paper backdrop of a town and mountain transforms into a maze of mirrors and colors as the dancing, red shoes-donning Victoria is transported to a world completely separate from reality – and it’s all set to the film’s Oscar-winning score.  Never have I felt so fortunate for a fifteen+ minute sequence that completely disrupts a film’s narrative.  Such a thing is unspeakable in just about any other movie, but it works here because, well, it looks so damn good.  But more importantly, it works because all of these spectacular images are emanating from Victoria’s mindset – they’re a projection of her peace and her happiness once she’s in her element.  The nervousness she feels right before the curtains go up are lifted once she starts twirling – and once she dons the red shoes – as the audience of the movie is treated to a glimpse of something that cannot be seen by the audience within the movie.  If scenes before and after the extended ballet sequence show Victoria leaning towards giving it all up to run off with Julian, then this sequence shows the other side of the coin – Victoria doing something she (thinks she) loves.  Ballet dancing is like her meditation – she is able to retreat within herself, to be at peace if only for a little while, and we’re able to retreat there with her.

The ending of the film is sudden and abrupt, and comes as a shock…but does it really?  Victoria is being pulled like a tug-of-war rope between the obsessed and demanding Lermontov and the loving (but just as demanding) Julian.  I’ll say one thing, though: the final fate that does befall Victoria falls way outside that 2-choice double-edged sword.  At least she maintains her independence, makes her own 3rd choice that’s unexpected, right?  But, you could look it all as Powell and Pressburger’s grand treatise supporting the concept of fate – in this case, Victoria’s sudden yet inescapable fate that’s far too akin to the source material – it’s all in the shoes.  She loves the ballet, she loves Julian – the rules dictate she can’t have both.  She makes her choice, runs from both – but cannot escape either one.  In the end, the red shoes do their job.  Life imitates art.

10/10

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And on a somewhat related note:

 

I think it’s uncanny, but everyone else thinks I’m nuts 😕

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5 comments so far

  1. balletshoes22 on

    You may also need to consider whether to have an elastic band or ribbons on your Ballet shoes . Children should use ballet shoes with elastic bands that are sewn across the top whereas ribbons are usually more suited for rehearsals. You should check with your instructor to find which to use. In case your instructor tells you to purchase a particular type of ballet shoe then those are the ones that you must absolutely have.

  2. Simon M. on

    … 😆

  3. kush on

    mmm… that’s the one thing I love about British cinema – a lot of the time it is refreshingly devoid of clichés.

  4. mrsemmapeel on

    Second best spam ever. I once got nun porn, that’s hard to beat.

    Your review reminds me why and how much much I love this movie, I should rewatch it soon. I’ve actually never seen a good print of it, only a ratty VHS.

  5. Simon M. on

    …you still have the link to the nun porn, by chance? 😛

    But yeah, I didn’t think I’d be wowed by Powell more than I was wowed by Peeping Tom, but this movie most unexpectedly did it. I caught it on TCM, so I’m pretty sure I got lucky with the quality. Isn’t it in the Criterion Collection? If so, yeah, definitely check it out again. If it could be one of your favorites after watching it on a shitty VHS, just think how much better it’ll be when you watch a legit copy 🙂


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