Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film about a ballet company and its new star, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who is torn between her love of dancing and her love of the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Victoria has always dreamed of being a great dancer, and with the famous ballet director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), she gets her chance, catching the notoriously picky Lermontov's attention and increasingly becoming the company's star performer. At the same time, Lermontov has hired the aspiring young composer Julian, and he too becomes a star within the company, composing original new music that impresses everyone who hears it. The only catch is that Lermontov has an obsession with dancers committing their entire lives to their art — he is furious when his previous star announces that she's getting married — and since it's inevitable that Victoria and Julian will eventually fall in love, their success seems very tenuous.

The film is about the ballet, of course, but more than that it's about the untenable position of women in a world that forces them to choose between ordinary domestic pleasures — love, marriage, family — and the ability to express themselves creatively or professionally. By the end of the film, Victoria is positioned between two men, Lermontov and Julian, neither of whom will allow her to build a balanced, happy life for herself. Both men demand that she choose one or the other. The final confrontation is structured like the showdown of a love triangle, the two men verbally dueling over the woman they both want, even though Lermontov has no sexual or romantic desire for Victoria; he wants only for her to dedicate herself entirely to dancing. In between them, Victoria can only cry, being asked to choose when it's obvious that she both loves Julian and loves dancing, and wouldn't want to give up either. (Though why she'd ever want Julian, who's made up like a wispy 30s Hollywood leading man and who's as much of an arrogant, unyielding jerk as Lermontov, is a question the film can never quite answer.) The film is positively progressive in its examination of Victoria's dilemma, even if it's only in tragic terms, with no way out for her, no solution to resolve these tensions tearing her apart.

But that's the nature of this film. It's an overwrought melodrama and it knows it — it revels in it, in fact. The performances, with the exception of Shearer's supple, subtle turn as Victoria, are uniformly over-the-top, both onstage and off. At one point, the choreographer Ljubov (Léonide Massine) dances around Lermontov while arguing with him, as though dancing a part in a ballet; a spotlight even follows Ljubov around as though he were still rehearsing. This scene, with its light comic undertones, suggests that these people live the ballet, that onstage and off they're prone to dramatics and overstatement, to grand gestures that could be seen way up in the last rows of the theater. They're always projecting, and so their histrionics work within the context of their characters. This is especially true of Lermontov, who despite his backstage role always seems to be acting, to be projecting the image of the demanding, tyrannical director that he believes he should inhabit. Walbrook's performance is such great fun because of this artificiality, this note of hysterical overacting that infuses everything Lermontov does. After he finally convinces Victoria to return to dancing towards the end of the film, when she leaves the room he shakes his arms around, clasping at the air, grandly declaring his excitement at his victory to the empty room.

Powell and Pressburger match the story's melodramatics with lush, patently artificial imagery that enhances the film's underlying themes: as is so often the case in their cinema, the film seems to take place in a surreal dreamworld of painted backdrops and lavish sets that stand in for such glamorous locales as Monte Carlo. Onstage and offstage are united in artificiality, suggesting that for these artists, under Lermontov's guidance, life and art are unified, with the latter overshadowing the former. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the sublime 15-minute sequence in which Victoria performs the ballet The Red Shoes for the first time. It is one of the finest sequences in the cinema, a beautiful and remarkably playful melding of the cinema and the theater, and an ode, not to the power of ballet but to the power of Powell and Pressburger's own chosen art.

Once the performance starts, Powell and Pressburger deliberately and playfully erase the boundaries and limitations of the theatrical stage, leaping into the realm of the cinema. When Victoria's character in the ballet sees the red shoes in a shop window, she imagines that she sees herself dancing in the window, turning pirouettes. It is an idea that's all but impossible to convey purely through dancing, on a stage: it is internal, a moment of imagination that can only be conveyed cinematically. So Powell and Pressburger superimpose an image of Victoria dancing in the window, as she stands outside, looking in and imagining this scene. Although the moment ostensibly occurs during a real theatrical performance of the ballet, before an audience, Powell and Pressburger instead stage the sequence with a cinematic sensibility that could never be translated to the stage in this way. When Victoria first dons the red shoes, she does so by leaping forward into them, and in a closeup on her feet, the shoes change, in an instant between frames, from her plain white ones to the bold red ones. It is, again, a moment that purposefully shatters the illusion of a ballet taking place on a stage — in a theatrical performance, the dancer would have to go backstage and change her shoes at this point, but Powell and Pressburger elide the costume change through the magic of editing.

Again and again, the filmmakers are calling attention to the differences between the cinema and live theater, using every cinematic trick at their disposal to transform this ballet into a fluid, magical sequence. Victoria turns and leaps across the stage — and the wooden boards of the floor keep reminding one that this is a stage — and dances in long straight lines that would be impossible to maintain on a real stage without dancing into the backstage area. Indeed, at one point, after a lengthy sequence in which Victoria dances through a succession of narrow corridors and between buildings, Powell and Pressburger cut back to a long shot of the entire stage, which reveals Victoria emerging from the rear of the stage, where she would have just been dancing for a long time completely unseen by a theater audience. Only the camera is able to follow her back there, its graceful tracking following the fluid lines of her movement. The subsequent sequence of Victoria being taken away by the power of the red shoes relies heavily on superimposition to lend a ghostly, translucent quality to the dancer as she hops and twirls through eerie nighttime vistas and, finally, enters a free fall that's familiar from cinematic dream sequences but would, again, break the constraints of reality on a real stage. Still later, she dances with a wisp of paper that transforms briefly into a man, her own costume changing between shots, before the man again fades away into a newspaper blowing in the breeze.

Towards the end of the performance, Powell and Pressburger finally insert a high shot looking out towards the audience beyond the row of lights at the front of the stage, the first time since the very beginning of the performance that the presence of the audience or the stage borders are revealed. But at this moment the audience is replaced by a superimposition of a churning sea, and the sound of the waves blends subtly with the sound of applause, suggesting that Victoria is seeing everything through her character and the story of the ballet, seeing everything around her transformed and made real through the magic of creative expression. It is a stirring, thrilling sequence, and one feels both Victoria's joy in the dance, and the joy of the filmmakers in shaping and directing her dance. That joy, both in front of the camera and behind it, is the joy of creativity and art, and even when this film is at its most tragic and heartrending, that joy is the feeling that comes through most strongly.


Jake said...

Great review, Ed. I think this has unseated 2001 as my favorite film. I came to it via Scorsese (natch) and was just blown away by the experience. It's of course back in the public consciousness because of Black Swan, but I think they share more than just Aronofsky's love of it (and the fact that all dance movies must be judged against it). They both comprise a host of clichés, whether it's Powell & Pressburger incorporating the Ballets Russes wholesale and linking the predatory relationship between director and star or Aronofsky diving into the horrorshow of stage moms and emotional stunting. Yet they add up to these amazing experiences, these pure leaps into cinema that take all the behind-the-scenes realism of the practices and just throw them to the wind. It's a joy to watch, and I don't think I can come up with a purer moment in all the movies I've seen than the dance here that climaxes with that amazing subjective shot of the roaring ocean in lieu of crowd. It's the complete opposite of, say, The Wrestler, in which the star kills himself for that taste of applause. Vicky is truly in it for the art, and that makes the moment all the more intense and deeply felt.

DavidEhrenstein said...


I've said pretty much all I'd ever want to say in my liner notes for the new Crierion Collection edition of P&P's masterpiece.

The only thing that remians to be discussed is the mystery of Lermontov. To say he "has no romantic or sexual interst" in the heroine is both right and wrong. Obviously he has no conventional interest in her> Like his model (Diaghilev), and the actor who plays him (Walbrook) Lermontov is gay (one of the main reasons Powell wanted Walbrook to play him -- his ulta-elegant gayness) Needless to say many gay men become obsessed with women. Opera and ballet wouldn't exist without them ( see Proust for the details) But in The Red Shoes this particular obsession is brought to a point of truly unusual fetishism. Consoder the scene where descrivibg his plans for the ballet to the composer Craster(Marius Goring) Lermontov caresses a statue of a ballet slipper-clad foot.

Of course like all mad artist he wants control a la Svengali. But that's just the start. To turn Vicky inot a ballet star is one thing. To raise her to the level of a projection of his aritstic ideal is another. And THERE'S where the romance and sex come in -- however obscurely.

As Ludmilla Techrina says (in one of my favorite lines of dialogue in all cinema "He has. . .no heart. . .that man"
Perhaps true. Perhaps he has something else.

The Red Shoes is so deep into ballet that it becomes something else. People with little or no interest in ballet adore it.

And there is no other film quite like it.

Except of course Blade Runner

Patricia Perry said...

That's a great screen grab at the top!

Though why she'd ever want Julian, who's made up like a wispy 30s Hollywood leading man and who's as much of an arrogant, unyielding jerk as Lermontov, is a question the film can never quite answer.

Good point. I first saw this film in college, when I was a great deal more cynical than I am now, and my thought at the time was "Why would any woman throw herself off a balcony for a drip like Marius Goring?"

But I re-watched this very recently (in its gloriously restored version), and I found myself really pulled into the drama and that amazing saturated color paletee.

Nice review, Ed!

Jason Bellamy said...

I liked this movie the first time I saw it a few years ago, but on each return viewing -- including the one prompted by our Black Swan convo -- I like it a little bit more.

Lermontov never stops entertaining me. I love the drama with which he tells Victoria that she will dance "zee rled shews." Every time he says it, I giggle -- in a good way. Powell/Pressburger movies have this uncanny ability to seem like big, outrageous MOVIES while also nailing small, subtle scenes. Of course, so does Scorsese (at his best) -- no surprise there.

As for the film's ending: I figure that when Hitchcock saw it he was pissed he didn't come up with it himself.

DavidEhrenstein said...

There's a new biography of Diaghilve out, with lots of great dish on Massine -- who as one of the principle players in The Red Shoes (se pic atop this post), and his own choreographer, had the last artistic word.

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent take Ed. Your dead on about the Ballet being it's own little mini essay.

I did an observation of it last month and was somewhat stunned to realize just how much stuff there was I had never seen in it despite having watched the movie at least a dozen times before.


One of my all time favorites.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. It's great, though not surprising, to see that so many love this film, and it's great that the many references to it in connection to Black Swan have reignited some discussion of this film.

Jake, good comparisons to Black Swan, which obviously draws pretty heavily on Powell/Pressburger in examining the psychosexual pressures on a creative woman. Black Swan winds up venturing into some very different territory, but there are multiple overlaps and references.

David, those are interesting remarks about Lerontov and his fascination with Vicky, which is both too intense to be merely platonic or professional, and yet also not tinged with romantic desire like Craster's feelings for her. It's like lust without sex, which accounts for the woozy, operatic emotions that drive the film and create its atmosphere.

Pat, the drama undoubtedly pulls one in, but I still feel like the weakness of Craster, as a character and an actor, is a weakness of the film as well. The "love triangle" is unbalanced, in that the appeal of a professional career with Lermontov is very well-defined, while the appeal of romantic love doesn't offer much in opposition here.

Jason, great point about the tension between the BIG and the small in P&P. Their movies are big and melodramatic but deal with emotions in surprisingly nuanced ways. This film feels like a spectacle but has the intimacy and the quiet moments of an introspective character piece.

Ed Howard said...

Bryce, thanks for the comment and the link. The ballet section is my favorite part of the film by far, it's so thematically rich and visually sumptuous. In many ways the ballet overwhelms the rest of the narrative, which only reinforces how much ballet means to Vicky: art triumphs over life.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lermontov speaks to Vicky of "the doubtful comforts of romantic love" with greatcontempt -- indicating that he once loved and lost. Craster is a perfect example of what he means. He can only deal with Vicky in the most conventional way imaginable. He falls in love with her when she's dancing to his music In his eyes it's only HIS career that matters. She's supposed to give it up and become , as Lermontov spits it out disgustedly, "a housewife!"

So in the end she kills herselfg because there's no place for her to live. She leaps towards Julian, but in the grand manner of the ballet that Lermontov has brought to her. And as we see from his ashedn face at the close this destroys him utterly.

The Black Swan has next to none of this. The heroine turns on herself throughout, because it's all about her losing her mind. The impressario is no Lermontov. And Mila Kunis is right out of Showgirls.

Tony Dayoub said...

Though why she'd ever want Julian, who's made up like a wispy 30s Hollywood leading man and who's as much of an arrogant, unyielding jerk as Lermontov, is a question the film can never quite answer.

As I stated in my own review back in July:

"What struck me as I watched this iteration of the film (which I've seen at least a half-dozen times before) is how sympathetic one grows to Lermontov's side of the argument. Surely in 1948, audiences may have felt just as torn as Vicky between true love, in the form of Craster, and devotion to art, in the form of Lermontov. But Craster's behavior as he pleads with Vicky on the eve of his greatest musical triumph, begging her to abandon her return to the stage in order to follow him on his burgeoning career, seems ridiculously stupid and petty from a twenty-first century perspective. Even Lermontov at his most exploitative seems to be able to satisfy Vicky's, indeed every ambitious person's, need to self-actualize. One need not be a feminist to empathize with Lermontov in this situation."

DavidEhrenstein said...

True, but to go with Lermontov wouln't mean freedom -- it would mean enslavement.

From first to last Vicky is never really free.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I'd say Vicky is stuck between two bad options, but there's no doubt that Craster is the worse one. As Tony says, at least Lermontov is interested in Vicky as a creative woman. All Craster wants is, maybe, a housewife, who will abandon all her ambitions for his sake.

Lyz said...

Amazing review. Red Shoes is my second favorite film, but a close second to Network. As many fans of the Red Shoes, it was one of the main reasons I saw Black Swan. I hope with the success of Aronofsky's film brings back an interest in its ballet predecessor.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Lyz. I think Black Swan is already calling more attention to this P&P film, since so many reviews of the Aronofsky film mention this as an important reference point.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's a refeence point only up to a point. Aronosky's impressario isn't like Lermontov at all. Moreover the film is entirely about a ballerina's breakdown. It's a lot closer to Polanski than P&P.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Hi Ed.

Great work here as usual. Just wanted to drop by and wish you and your family an amazing year ahead.


Ed Howard said...

Thanks, JAFB! All the best to you as well in the new year.

Sam Juliano said...

"Again and again, the filmmakers are calling attention to the differences between the cinema and live theater, using every cinematic trick at their disposal to transform this ballet into a fluid, magical sequence..."

I adore this film and this iconic duo, but after reading this spectacular review and comment section, I'm afraid I can add little more that hasn't been broached and/or discussed. Among P & P's films, it's my second favorite after BLACK NARCISSUS, and the film's Techicolor beauty sits alone.

In any case, I would like to entend my Best Wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year to Ed and the esteemed readership at ONLY THE CINEMA. These hallowed halls have given more lovers a wealth of riches for which much appreciation must be tendered.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam, for the kind words, and apologies for my tardy response - your comment initially slipped by me in the holiday rush.