"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 16, 2011

"The Red Shoes" (1948) by Powell & Pressburger (Film review)

The Red Shoes (1948), by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ("the Archers"), has been called "the best ballet film ever made," and also "quintessential backstage drama" a la Chorus Line. Artistry nor expenses were spared to bring some color to the drab post-war years in Great-Britain: glorious Technicolor, beautiful cinematography, Oscar-winning sets and music, and an experly choreographed central dance sequence. The star of the film, Moira Shearer, was a real-life ballerina with the Sadler-Wells company.

The story is about the age-old choice between dedication to art and the demands of life. Rising star ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) has to choose between her love for a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a rising star like herself, and Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ruthless impresario of the Ballet Lermontov - based on Diaghilev -, living only for art and  intent on perfection.

Page becomes star dancer in a ballet written by Craster and choreographed by Lermontov, based on the story "The Red Shoes" by Hans Christian Andersen. It is the fable of a young girl who puts on a pair of red slippers that help her to dance as she never danced before, but then will not allow her to stop dancing until she drops dead. The arrogant, curt, and imperious Lermontov is a sort of Mephistopheles (although he has nothing sinister). He promises to make Page the greatest dancer ever, but demands obedience above all else and forbids her to have a private life. After she falls in love with composer Craster, both are fired. When Lermontov later relents and allows Page to come back to dance in the Red Shoes, Craster leaves the opening night of his first opera to reclaim her. He argues over her with Lermontov. Torn between two opposites, as soon as Victoria Page puts on the red shoes, they take control of her and lead her outside where she jumps to her death.

I love classical music and ballet, so I should be fascinated by a film with a 15-minute dance sequence at its core. Well, not really. The Red Shoes is Gothic, blubbery, melodramatic and as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. To name a few points: no young composer would walk out of Covent Garden when he is about to conduct his first opera there, no ballerina would run out of the theater just as the curtain is about to rise. Backstage, adjustments of private life with art are continuously being made. There can be real conflicts here, especially in the mid-twentieth century when women were more restricted in their choice, but it is ridiculous to have such problems lead to suicide. Of course, in the film it was "the force" of the red shoes that led Victoria Page to her death, but the problem is that she could not have been wearing those red shoes before the start of the performance... it was part of the ballet that she changed into them on-stage (the directors knew this, but kept this incongruent last scene for melodramatic impact).

There are other things. This 1948 film has a strong 19th century look with ballrooms, expensive hotels in southern France, beautiful fluffy dresses, private carriages in trains pulled by steam locomotives, and Lermontov being attended to like a feudal lord. I would have liked to see ballet and classical music as part of modern life, rather than a bygone age. The music of the ballet (composed by Brian Easdale), too, is more of the 19th century - in line with Hollywood film music, so it brought in an Oscar -, but only listen to Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Copland to hear what real 20th century ballet music sounds like.

The Red Shoes as a whole is like an expensive stage set, beautiful but fake. The characters (except, partly, Lermontov) remain pieces of cardboard and the atmosphere is stilted and old-fashioned. This heap of kitsch is the opposite of how I would like to see a film about ballet.

Being a ballet dancer is as heavy as top sport. This film lacks the essential quality: the reek of sweat.
Moira Shearer herself opted in the end for private life over a lasting career in ballet and film. In a 1994 interview she said about The Red Shoes: "The whole story of Victoria Page is such nonsense from the point of view of any real person [...]. You have to take that film with a huge tin of salt, because there was never a ballet company anywhere which was like that. I'm sure no dancer of any generation ever had this supposedly appalling problem ending in suicide, if you please - between real life and the ballet."
The Red Shoes has been brought our by Criterion.