Monday, January 24, 2011

The Red Shoes (1948)

Title: The Red Shoes (1948)

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring


When you watch a film like The Red Shoes, there comes a moment when you realize that you are in the presence of a classic film in every sense of the word. It is a tour de force of colors, emotions and great performances. I had it on my must watch list for a while, because I’d read about its classic status, you know, basically its hailed as one of those movies that you have to watch before you die. After watching Aronofsky’s Black Swan I made watching The Red Shoes a priority because they were thematically similar. I’m so glad I finally got to watch this beautiful film!

The Red Shoes tells the tale of a young lady named Victoria Page, she wants nothing more then to dance ballet all her life. She has a passion and a talent for it, but doesn’t belong to any professional ballet group. That is until her mother invites Boris Lermentov, a famous ballet director to a party at her house. Victoria talks with Boris and the conversation leads to Victoria being accepted in ‘Ballet Lermentov’ the most prestigious of all ballet groups. While there, she earns the leading role in a ballet called ‘The Red Shoes’. At the same time, a young music composer by the name of Julian Craster gets accepted into Ballet Lermentov. Julian and Victoria develop a romance that Boris prohibits. He thinks love is a distraction and that anyone who dedicates their life to love will never become a great dancer. What will ultimately be the most important thing in Victoria’s life? Ballet or Love?

This battle between career and love is the main theme of the film. Can a person live a married life and at the same time dedicate their heart and soul to their careers? Or does one exclude the other? This theme is laid out early in the film when Boris Lermentov asks Victoria in one of the most iconic bits of dialog from the film:

Lermontov: “Why do you want to dance?”

Victoria: “Why do you want to live?”

Lermontov: “I don’t know precisely why, but I must”

Victoria: “That is my answer as well”

Her devotion to ballet takes her to great heights. With Lermontov’s guidance and lots of practice she becomes a world renowned ballet dancer. We get to see many of the ballets she performs; the most prominent one being ‘The Red Shoes’. This is really where the film shifts into surreal, dreamlike brilliance. You see when Victoria begins to perform The Red Shoes, we actually get to see the play come to life in a heightened sense of reality, where colors are abundant and vibrant, virtually jumping off the screen. Since this movie doesn’t play by any rules, but rather invents them, this whole ballet sequence lasts for more then 20 minutes. We see the whole story of The Red Shoes develop before our eyes, without a rush to cut to some other part of the story or anything. It unfolds like a fantasy or a fairy tale. The filmmakers simply decided to indulge into the ballet, and it’s really where the film earns its wings as a Bravado piece of filmmaking.

 The colors are vibrant in this film!

What’s awesome about The Red Shoes ballet is how perfectly it fits with the whole story of the film itself. You see, The Red Shoes (the ballet) is a story about a girl who puts on these magical red ballet shoes that never allow her to stop dancing. The girl grows restless, but the shoes don’t. The shoes want to dance all the time! Ultimately, the shoes wear the girl down and she dies dancing. So as you can see, the ballet is representative of Victoria’s desire to dance her life away. Lermentov, the ballet director is obsessive with his work, and he doesn’t believe that love should get in the way of ones passion for ballet, or art. He wants to create a ballet that is so monumental that everyone will remember him for all eternity, and he believes that in order to do so, love has to be ignored. The problem comes when Victoria falls in love with Julian, the composer. Can’t Victoria have both love and a career?

For me, the most amazing thing about this film apart from the colors and the surrealism, are the characters. They are so well defined, so passionate. You can tell there was some good writing involved here, this wasn’t some rushed Hollywood production looking to make a quick buck. Nope, this film was lovingly brought to life by people who were as passionate about filmmaking as Lermentov is with his ballet group. The actress who plays Victoria, Moira Shearer was such a beautiful actress. I really coudnt take my eyes off her when she was on screen, so classy and sexy at the same time. Lermontov is this over powering persona, really dedicated to his work. He takes his love for ballet to obsessive heights. He is equal parts hateful, equal parts likeable. These characters are an essential part of what brings this film to vibrant life. And the film is filled with many lively characters like these, the whole ballet group is filled with likable hard working people dedicated to their art. This film shows how a film that has excellence behind every department will bring forth a memorable picture, hence this classic we are talking about today.

The obsessive Boris Lermentov

Comparisons between this film and Aronofsky’s Black Swan are impossible after having seen both films. You can definitely see that Aronofsky was partially inspired by The Red Shoes while making Black Swan. The similarities are there: a girl who is passionate about ballet is accepted into a prestigious ballet group. She gets the lead role. The ballet director is strict and passionate about his work. He finds the girl imperfect, but is willing to give her a chance to become a great dancer. Another similarity is how the ballet comes alive at certain point in the film, making the world of the ballet seem real. The only difference between both films is that The Red Shoes extends these scenes, making the ballet come to life for a longer period of time. There are more similarities, but I’ll let you catch them when you see the film. Black Swan is definitely the darker of the two films, The Red Shoes pits devotion to ones craft vs. devotion to a loved one, while Black Swan is all about Nina’s ambiguity and her frustrating search for perfection. Plus Aronofsky’s film is more of a psychological thriller. It’s interesting how both films are extremely similar and yet extremely different.

In closing, I’d like to say that The Red Shoes is a bonafide classic that should not be missed by any true film fan. It’s a film that elevates filmmaking to its highest expression; films like The Red Shoes remind me why I love watching movies.

Rating: 5 out of 5

The Red Shoes - Criterion CollectionThe Red Shoes (The Criterion Collection)The Red Shoes [VHS]The Red Shoes (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

A film of rare beauty and sensuality. A film of formal eloquence and rippling energy and beauty. An overload of style which in itself was subversive at a time when British cinema was preoccupied with social realism and documentary aesthetics. I also recommend the following Powell/Pressburger films Franco - TALES OF HOFFMAN, A CANTERBURY TALE and BLACK NARCISSUS (if you haven't seen them already) - wonderful review!

Mr. Fiendish said...

Agreed. Great movie. and like Shaun, you should really check out the Michael Powell films. Especially Peeping Tom.

Franco Macabro said...

@Shaun: You are right about the films sensuality, slowly as I watched this film I realized I was falling in love with Moira Shearer, wow, is she stunningly beautiful in this film or what??!

I've heard a lot about Black Narcissus, gonna have to make it a priority to watch it. This film is a true asset of English cinema!

@Mr.Fiendish: I need to see Peeping Tom, I remember your review for it.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I have always seen the colourful, fantastical melodramas of Powell/Pressburger as bedfellows to Hammer's gothic horror. Both offered an alternative to kitchen sink realism and the Griersonian attitude to documentary realism and social purpose. PEEPING TOM was made after Powell & Pressburger's relationship had dissolved, and had a look, tone and feel quite different to the ravishing melodramas of the 40's and 50's. The subersiveness in THE RED SHOES is its exploration of desire and fantasy and its attitude too emotional expression, all aspects which were ill at ease with the prevailing social realist aesthetic that dominated. In contrast PEEPING TOM was all about voyeurism and spectatorship and was more self-consciously provocative. I prefer THE RED SHOES because its rebellion lay in its daring attitude to form and aesthetics....apologies for rattling on for ages! :-)

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Shaun rattling on for ages is encouraged here at The Film Connoisseur man! Its the kind reply I prefer!

Specially when your comment is so informative, I had no idea that this movie had a subversive vibe to it because it went against the grain for the films that were being made in English cinema at the time.

Which would you say were socially conscious films that had that realistic/social attitude to them? Films like If... for example? Though that one is more a film from the 60s but I guess it fits a bit with what you were saying about the socially conscious films.

I tell you, without a doubt The Red Shoes for me is one of the most beautiful looking films ever, the colors are really something. Im really looking forward to Black Narcissus, its already #1 on my Q, so expect a review for it in the coming weeks.

Neil Fulwood said...

I can only echo Shaun's sentiments.

'The Red Shoes' is a gorgeous, dizzying and rule-breaking film, utterly intoxicating and delirious. It's one of the highlights in Powell and Pressburger's career - and considering they made almost nothing but masterpieces for a decade and a half, that's saying something!

Franco Macabro said...

Well, this is my first Powell Pressburger film and I have to say I am impressed! I will be watching more of their masterpices\films in the days to follow!

Thanks for commenting Neil.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

In terms of the British Documentary movement led by John Grierson you're talking about films like - DRIFTERS, FIRES WERE STARTED, COAL FACE and many others. In the 40's and 50's the social problem films of Ealing Studios such as THE BLUE LAMP, POOL OF LONDON, VIOLENT PLAYGROUND, SAPPHIRE, FLAME IN THE STREETS and many more...and then the so called 'Kitchen Sink' films or 'Angry Young Men' films of the British New Wave - ROOM AT THE TOP, SATURDAY NIGHT, SUNDAY MORNING, LOOK BACK IN ANGER, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER and more! - this brand of social realism was the critically accepted face of British cinema in the 30's, 40's, 50's and first part of the 60's - the melodramas of Gainsborough, and the colourful fantasies of Powell/Pressburger & Hammer belonged to a fantastical form of British expression which did not meet with critical favour by the middle/upper class elite - hope that helps out :-)

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

If you're interested in exploring this side of British cinema Franco - send me either an e-mail or a facebook message and I'll provide a list of the key films for you.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, that was an awesome explenation. Interesting, I never saw Hammer films that way. They were seen as escapist films, fantasies to forget the political craziness going on at the time.

Thanks for the info Shaun, much appreciated!

Neil Fulwood said...

Following on from Shaun's very well considered comments, have you seen Michael Powell's solo (ie. without Emeric Pressburger's involvement) film 'Peeping Tom'? The film which effectively destroyed his career in England, a film that was villified and reviled and never really got a proper appraisal until the likes of Martin Scorsese started championing it in the '80s. Watch it on a double bill with Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'. Both films severely challenge the audience's aesthetics and complicity - only Hitchcock does it implicitly while Powell comes right out and goes on the offensive.

Franco Macabro said...

Wow, I guess I got my film watching cut out for me for the next couple of days. Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom and Vertigo! Thats how its going to go. Thanks for the suggestions people, this is why I love blogging!


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