In 2009, the digitally restored print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic, The Red Shoes, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. This marked the final chapter in a seven-year restoration effort led by Martin Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Last July, a copy of the print was released by Criterion on DVD and Bluray. Though this column will normally be devoted to reviews of newly released films, it will honor this achievement with a review of The Red Shoes, first released in 1948.
The film opens with a crowd of students mobbing a theater in anticipation of the premiere of a ballet. Yes, a ballet. They are wild, frenzied, passionate and obsessed. It is clear that this ballet is the single focus of their lives. They sit and stare wide-eyed at the stage with a religious zeal that makes the members of the Manson family seem broad-minded. The question that arises in the viewer’s mind is a natural one: What in blue blazes is this?
Welcome to the world of Powell and Pressburger.
Three things stand out when you watch The Red Shoes: the beauty, the absurdity and the fact that the two go together. Let’s start with the absurdity; the plot.
The narrative is drawn from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, which tells the story of a young girl who comes across a pair of red slippers. She puts them on and begins to dance, more beautifully than she ever had before.
She dances and dances until she grows weary and tries to stop, but the red shoes will not let her. The red shoes do not stop, resulting in tragic consequences. Happy stuff, right?
Powell and Pressburger took Andersen’s fairy tale and used it as the basis for a story that deals with the intersection of life and art. The film’s focal point is the young Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), the new prima ballerina in the world famous Ballet Lermontov.
In her, impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) sees the next great talent, if only she can dedicate her life to a single task: dancing. In Boris’ mind no room exists for anything but art. It is not the means to an end. It is an end in itself.
At first things go smoothly, but love intervenes in the form of young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and Vicky must choose between art and love, for the one thing that Boris cannot stand is a ballerina with dual passions. If you know the ending to Anderson’s fairy tale, you can guess the ending to The Red Shoes.
The absurdity lies in Walbrook’s character. He is a man so obsessed with the art of dance that he has lost all humanity. He is vain, cruel, dismissive and utterly heartless. You will not find a more unsympathetic character. From his dancers he expects complete and absolute devotion. Otherwise, they’re gone. When asked how he expects to change human nature, he replies with a sneer, “I don’t. I intend to ignore it.”
Statements such as these make you want to take him by the collar and slap some good sense into him. But here’s the thing: If he had any sense, the film wouldn’t work. The plot would fall apart. He is the linchpin. Without his hard-line artistic stand, there is no conflict, no reason for Victoria to make any choice between dance and romance. She can have her cake and eat it too.
So the question now is: why? Why make a film about this? It’s all rather esoteric. Who really cares about what Victoria chooses? The simple answer is that nobody does. They don’t because the film isn’t about Victoria’s choice, no matter how many reviews you read to the contrary. It’s the conflict, but it’s not the film, and in this case there is a difference.
Whereas you can find the meaning of most films within the conflict and resolution, you cannot with The Red Shoes. No, the true meaning of The Red Shoes is found in the most unlikely of places: the production design.
The first thing that strikes you when you watch The Red Shoes is its beauty. Watching it is like watching a beautiful woman — you don’t ask why the woman is beautiful, you just appreciate the fact that she is. And The Red Shoes is beautiful. Every scene is an exercise in expressionist lighting. Every frame is lush and vibrant.
The highlight is the 17-minute ballet sequence that is integrated perfectly into the narrative. And yes, I know that praising a 17-minute ballet sequence is not the way to make people want to see a film, but it is brilliant to watch, a masterwork of cinema that would go on to inspire Gene Kelley and Stanley Donnen’s Singin’ in the Rain.
That is the point of The Red Shoes — to put something beautiful up on the screen. Look at the release date. 1948. The postwar era had begun. Britons were coming off of five years of brutal conflict, of being told to die for country, to sacrifice. Viewers needed something new, something to regain a lust for life. Powell and Pressburger realized that
The Red Shoes told them to live — to live for beauty, to live for their passions, to live for themselves. To do this, Powell and Pressburger drew upon a story from an earlier age, a simpler age, one cloaked in familiarity and nostalgia. But their message is one for all times.
Ars gratia artis. Art for art’s sake.