The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, made just a year after their elegant and impeccable masterpiece Black Narcissus, reaches heights that are untouched elsewhere in cinema; as a film about art and artists, it fully justifies itself as a paean to the pure commitment and passion of artists themselves, the rest of the world be damned. Its air of the fantastic, the identification it all but forces with a well-crafted character, and the sensation we get that it’s a bodily experience of movement place us, indeed, into the shoes that send us dancing off into the unknown. In summary, it is explosive, sumptuous, magnificently absorbing entertainment. As in their other Technicolor classics, Powell & Pressburger fire passionately into their story with incredible precision, utilizing every tool at their disposal, infusing their work with an obviously virtuosic command of the form. With its intimate sets that feel somehow enormous and the eye-gouging lights and colors of Jack Cardiff’s camera, the whole production — in any context — has an identical effect to what it’s ostensibly supposed to feel like to see a movie in IMAX, except The Red Shoes needs no technical boost to achieve this. Whatever the negative aspects of their productions are, Powell & Pressburger’s greatest works are unmistakably complete and vast nights out at the movies, and nothing can be faulted about the directorial and visual choices made here.
Having said that, it should be mentioned — particularly in light of the relative seamlessness of Black Narcissus — that The Red Shoes is essentially three movies stacked together, two long character-driven sequences bisected by a stunning interlude. In the first third of the film, the elegance of a politely restrained but increasingly volatile three-way relationship between composer (Marius Goring), dancer (Moira Shearer) and impresario (Anton Walbrook) is explored with implicit tension, emphasizing how their craft and professionalism erodes (or enhances?) their individual identities. The ballet we see in progress is deceptively staged as if spontaneous or without design, and always with a sense of the camaraderie inherent to performing in a group. Early scenes gracefully provide each character’s differing interpretation of a single moment, but without any overbearing tricks of cutting or camera movement. The trickery in these early, human moments all comes from the human bodies inhabiting the film, the way everything falls together into its casual beauty, the camerawork merely contributing its small (but impressive) share to the rhythm. Certainly there is visual glory to nearly every shot, but it’s restrained and perfect, much like the characters, three disparate people brought together in the mission of bringing a ballet to fruition. The beauty of the music, the power of the dancing, all tantalizingly massive, but everything tangible and striking a balance that shuts out all layers of obvious fantasy.
And then comes the ballet sequence.
A few years later, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen interrupted the story of Singin’ in the Rain to delve into an introspective character portrait created through dance, abstractly presented, the illusion of a dream. For the duration of the scene, the directors removed all cinematic barriers between the audience and a kind of surreal but unbridled erotic joy. In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger do something similar in execution to that stunning feat but actually rather closer to the powerful transportation Walt Disney was driving at in Fantasia. For twenty minutes, The Red Shoes is so cinematic that it essentially ceases to be cinema. Prior to this screen-tearing, absolutely jaw-dropping sequence, The Red Shoes instills in its audience a respect for dance and for its characters that aids immensely in selling the artful but perfectly rational (in a storytelling fashion) ballet as both a performance and as a fiery, gut-splitting examination of the mind of the central performer, played brilliantly by Shearer.
It’s ironic in a way how much the directors are able to wow the crowd with dancing in the first half, because dancing is nearly beside the point in this midsection. The triumph this time is the way the audience and the film dance along with the character into something altogether more startling than a simple exotic ballet sequence. The scene is set apart from most of its ilk easily not just because of its dreamlike seduction but because it is so subjective. The ballet as imagined here is an elucidation of what’s in the head of the character of Victoria Page, her sense of life, her dreams and perceptions of motion all coalescing magnificently; she’s told that the music is the only thing that matters, and the envisioning of her head as she delivers a star-making performance somehow approximates the abstract experiences and associations of anyone’s relationship to music. There is also, of course, concrete expression of the subtle paranoia that lingers from Vicky’s integration into the company: the puppeteering of her by two men of dueling natures; yet simultaneously, the entire sequence — in its indescribable parade of indelible images — marks the rare instance of a movie briefly touching a sensation of pure freedom. It doesn’t linger or cut to impress, it cuts specifically, to every tiny detail, to the emotion of Shearer’s character. It is that character. The effect is astounding. No matter how many times one may see it, one remains transported and awed by it; no musical or dance sequence I have ever seen has been so visceral and so awash in storytelling as served by the performers rather than a detour simply to present their virtuosity, like an extended guitar solo. Hyperbolic as it sounds, it’s difficult not to classify it as one of the most brilliant and fully realized moments of any feature film.
That’s what makes it so crushing that the movie collapses on itself — with disheartening speed — in the second half. The Red Shoes unfortunately is fatally overlong; the ballet should be something like the climax of the film, not the wedge that divides it into two distinct parts, one of them great thanks to its exciting buildup to a sublime cinematic moment, the other an incredibly harsh comedown from the prior scene. The dance scene slid in and out of fantasy, forcing the viewer to participate in a dream that blurred reality; it was dangerous, rocky, ragged, impassioned. Perversely, the character-driven heartache of the film’s last half feels hollow and fake compared to the raw emotion of that fantasy full of trickery (with almost painfully overwhelming set design and effects work). This is at least partially because the first act of The Red Shoes is so emphatically about lives driven completely by art, times three, so that when we’re expected to believe that a cordial, professional relationship between Shearer’s Vicky and Goring’s Julian has blossomed into romance offscreen, it seems at best like forced parable and at worst like lazy dramatics. (The heartbreak Anton Walbrook displays at “losing” Vicky is no less incongruous to the character we’ve come to know up to this point.) The narrative purpose in forcing Vicky to choose between her love and her inner life has obvious merit, but it doesn’t grow naturally from the prior body of the work.
After this fatal error, not only does the movie spend too much time wandering down uninteresting detours, seemingly lingering and never giving much reason for its extrapolations, it fails to effectively reestablish the characters after their abstract presentation in the ballet. The ending is swell, revealing that the movie that pretended to be about people making an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story is actually itself an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story, but getting to it is too much of a sacrifice, the story having laboriously deconstructed in a surprisingly boring and uncinematic fashion without telling us much of anything that the ballet already hadn’t: about commitment to artistry, about the manipulation of a woman by two men, about the whiff of unreality that comes from fully losing oneself in creative work. Moreover, the first act is admirable in its shunning of any shoehorning of romance between the characters; it’s as though Powell and Pressburger are so embarrassed by (what they perceive as) the narrative or commercial necessity of doing this with the people they’ve invented that they minimize the onscreen manifestations of it until the very fact of it lacks any sort of credibility to us. The marriage of Vicky and Julian feels fictitious — maybe because their biggest love scene together takes place inside the impresario Lermontov’s head, twin beds and late-night composing. everything.
The flaws in The Red Shoes — which is still an overwhelming, haunting experience — can be pinned down to the very scene that makes the movie so memorable. The reason the second half is so difficult to get through is that its slowed-down, low-key characterization is such a harsh contrast with the delirious pacing and articulate passion of the dance. After you’ve witnessed something like that, something that makes Tales of Hoffmann look like From Justin to Kelly, how can you learn to care about a conventional telling of the story of these lives, after seeing how powerful another angle could be? Powell and Pressburger had to choose between telling a story and creating one of the best scenes in film history. For the movie’s sake, they made the wrong decision; for ours, except for the discomfort in that last hour, which is merely a minor inconvenience, thank heavens for this mistake.
[Expanded and altered version of a review first posted in 2007.]