DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Red Shoes

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Irene Brown


What does it take to be a great artist? More than just talent and skill, but complete dedication to one’s art. This question is the driving force behind one of the great films of the Powell/Pressburger oeuvre, ‘The Red Shoes”. An unconventional picture for 1948, compared with the traditional Hollywood musical, Powell/Pressburger’s film feels like an experiment in storytelling, less a song and dance routine than it is about the artists make who the art.

Julian Crastner (Marius Goring), an aspiring composer, and Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a young dancer desperately want to break into the renowned Lementov Ballet. Crasnter manages to finagle his way into a meeting with the legendary Boris Lementov and eek out a small gig with the orchestra. Vicky uses her family influence to get some face time with Lementov and secure an audition. Both impress the man so much they quickly rise through the ranks of the company to be the stars of the ballet.

Crastner's musical masterpiece comes in the form of a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's fable The Red Shoes - the story of a desperate ballerina who sells her soul to buy a pair of red shoes which cause her to dance morning, noon and night causing her demise. With procedural detail we see the birth of the play from the idea to its premiere with all the creative steps in between, however grueling. And over the course of this time Crasnter and Page fall in love, which goes against Lementov's unbreakable rule that the dancers never ever fall in love. With Crastner and Page split from the company Lementov is forced to reconcile his uncompromising professional convictions with his most talented artist's personal lives. But for Page, she finds reconciling professional and personal priorities even more difficult, soon driving her to madness like her character in the Red Shoes.

Coming from Powell/Pressburger, two filmmakers working in Britain, outside of the studio system, there's a freshness to their approach to this story. At heart 'The Red Shoe" is a tragedy, executed with genuine love and appreciation for the process of making art. For two thirds, the film charts the upward path of its three main characters Lementov, Page and Crastner, with an almost procedural level of detail behind the scenes of the stage. There's very little music or dance until the filmmakers take a 25mins time out to show us the Red Shoes being performed. The scene is marvelous, with Powell/Pressburger starting the ballet on the stage, and freely moving the audience through cinematic interpretations of the work. This is the only musical sequence in the film, but its so glorious it lingers through the rest of the picture.

The key point of conflict only occurs at the 1:40 mark when Page's romance with Crastner is revealed. It would seem an arbitrary beat - a romance which emerges quickly and never on screen, only told to us by one of the other characters. But we're brought back to the opening of the picture when the stubborn Lementov fires his prima ballerina for becoming engaged, thus defying Lementov's strict policy that his dancers must never fall in love. It's a seemingly arbitrary rule to create conflict, but it informs the key flaw of Lementov’s character. His ego and power over everyone around him is how he gets the best out of his artists.

The moment also reveals the dark side of the life of an artist - the soul that both Page and Crastner have sold to achieve their success. This sacrifice is also hinted at in Lementov’s first meeting with the ambitious and naive Vicky. Lementov asks Vicky ‘why do you dance’. Vicky responds, “why do you live?” This is the answer he wanted to hear, complete dedication to the art, and under Lementov’s direction and his own ambition.

And so the rest of the picture plays out like a great Shakespearean tragedy, paralleling the same path toward self-destruction as the poor ballerina in the Red Shoes.

Powell and Pressburger’s direction and visual design is delicious – a fast paced visual delight in every scene. Of course Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography is glorious, using colour magnificently as an expression of the vibrancy of the theatre and the lives of Page and Crastner.

It's easy to see why Martin Scorsese has famously been a longtime supporter of Powell/Pressburger and this film in particular. There's a distinct Italian operatic sensibility - a heightened realism and dark obsession which subverts the traditional formula of a Hollywood musical.

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