Essential Cinema #2: The Red Shoes

There is a seventeen-minute ballet sequence that lies at the heart of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.  The camera moves around with the dancers who twist and throw their bodies gracefully across the stage.  This is the kind of sequence that great movies claim, minutes and minutes of fascinating, poetic beauty.  What we see in the film is not meant to be what the ballet’s audience is seeing (we never see an audience member the whole movie), but what ballerina, Victoria Page, is imagining.  These are the only moments of the film that are not meant to be rooted deeply in reality; the filmmakers want us to see the art of ballet as a ballerina would see it.  The way Victoria sees it.

Few films express both the joy and pain of an artist with such an obvious affection for the art itself.  Amadeus is another such film that comes to mind, but The Red Shoes is ambitious enough to pay tribute to two arts: ballet and music.  Since one of the main characters is the young composer, Julian Craster, the score has a uniquely important role in certain scenes that is usually reserved for songs in musicals.  Pieces of the score that are played during the ballet scenes might also be played in the moments of the ballet company spends off-stage.

The actors throughout the movie did all there own dancing, which only makes the picture a greater achievement.  No one who sees the film forgets the red-headed Moira Shearer, who stars as Victoria Page and had never been in a movie before.  However, the most powerful performance present may be that of veteran actor, Anton Walbrook, whose masterful performance as Lermontov requires him to say hostile lines with a merciless calm.  It is only in the last act of the film that we see him lose his composure.  His address to his ballet’s audience expresses the hopes that he had accumulated for Victoria.  The scene is an interesting contrast to earlier ones in which Victoria is ignored and avoided by Lermontov; the comparison does reveal that he is more concerned with making a great dancer than making a great dancer out of Victoria, personally.

No matter how many times I see this film, I always find that the romance between Victoria and Julian takes place later in the film than I thought.  The Red Shoes comes to its conclusion with more velocity and ends more abruptly than most films with its two and a quarter hour runtime which seems to maximize the power of the heartbreaking final minutes of the movie.  The film is such an incredible and joyful experience for almost its entire duration that the audience senses that there is something dark and tragic that lurks in the background.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger directed some of the finest and most beautiful Technicolor films ever made and their credits include Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Peeping Tom.  But over the years, The Red Shoes has clearly become their most beloved film.  The user reviews of the film on IMDb are full of endless compliments: “One of the few films impossible to over-praise” and “it caught on with other audiences, and many of us have fallen madly in love and treasured it for life.”  Yes, Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece is that good, and it has become one of the great joys of cinema for me and countless others.

Note: Anything written about The Red Shoes must mention the wonderful cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff.  So I will comment on it briefly:  This is one of the most beautiful films I have seen and one in which every shot could be marveled at.  If you would like to own the film I would strongly recommend putting up the money for the two-disc Criterion Collection edition, which is worth every penny.

5 responses to “Essential Cinema #2: The Red Shoes

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