Starring Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Léonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Esmond Knight
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Expectations: High, but cautious. I’ve heard lots of great things.
The Red Shoes is one of the classic films that I’ve purposefully neglected for no good reason. The title never enticed me and I’m not a big ballet fan, so I always figured I’d get to it later. After seeing Black Swan a couple of months back, my interest level was raised quite a bit, as that film was able to make me not only enjoy the ballet aspects, but make me feel like I had been missing out on a great art form. So when The Red Shoes passed into my hands through no effort on my part, I figured now was the time to check it out. Simply put, it’s incredible. From the cinematography to the lighting to the acting to the dance, every aspect is carefully utilized and crafted for maximum potential. This is the first film I’ve seen by the noted team of Powell & Pressburger and boy does it make me interested to see some more of their work.
The Red Shoes is loosely based upon the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, but it’s got a lot going for it besides all that. The film centers around three major characters: Julian, the budding composer, Vicky, the maturing dancer, and Lermontov, the stern ballet company leader. Each character is full of life and passion and comes alive on-screen. The subtle portrayals by the three actors is something to be commended and their strength allows The Red Shoes to remain somewhat timeless despite its age. The characters are interesting beyond this as well, with each one representing a person at a different stage down the same path of obtaining artistic excellence and the love of others. All three wish to have great success in their field, and all three achieve it in varied ways. How and why they do this is the driving force of the film and while I have a sincere desire to break it down, it’d be a crime to spoil anything.
The direction by Powell & Pressburger is nothing short of stunning as well. Each shot is perfectly framed and edited together, creating a visual masterpiece that has few contemporary equals. The Red Shoes ballet sequence alone is worthy of multiple accolades and awards, continuing to amaze and delight over sixty years after filming. The breathtaking color and light combined with expertly choreographed ballet is enough to evoke emotion from even the most hardened critics of the art form. The use of camera tricks is also incredibly well done, with the red shoes on the floor in one moment, and then instantly on Vicky’s feet in the next. Instead of simply looking like two shots cut together though, the sequence and the shot is so magical that it almost seems as if you saw the red shoes place themselves on her feet and tie themselves up. This is only one moment of editing brilliance within a sequence that contains a plethora.
The first half of the film (everything up to The Red Shoes ballet) can be seen as a little slow-moving, but I would argue that it is necessary to properly set up all the following events. It is after The Red Shoes sequence though that the film really gets going, tying together its loose plot strings into a luscious tapestry of emotions and feelings. All the way to the end, the film is a stunning example of 1940s cinema and truly something to behold. I keep reaching back and trying to put my finger on what exactly about the film intoxicated me so, and I keep coming back to the character depth. The three central characters teem with ambition and passions, skillfully weaving in and out of each other’s lives right up until the final moments.
I have to say that my appreciation for Black Swan is somewhat diminished after viewing The Red Shoes. So many aspects of the recent film can be traced back to The Red Shoes, that it could in some ways be thought of as a slight remake or re-imagining. The shot I loved so much in Black Swan where the camera pirouettes and stops on a dime, like a ballet dancer… it’s in The Red Shoes. The life imitating art plot aspects… all in The Red Shoes. The tragedy of performance art… in The Red Shoes. The supernaturally filmed title ballet sequence… yeah, you get the idea. I don’t want to take too much away from Black Swan, because it’s a great movie in a wholly different genre than The Red Shoes because of the horror/altered reality elements, but they do have their similarities. In any case, it definitely owes a serious debt to The Red Shoes, and most likely would not exist without it.
The Red Shoes is a stunning, brilliant, incredibly well-written, visual masterpiece that should be a must on every film fan’s list. I’m sorry I waited this long to finally see it.