The Red Shoes
1948, 133 min.
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
"Why do you want to dance?"
"Why do you want to live?"
"Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must."
"That's my answer too."
-an exchange between Boris Lermontov and Victoria Page in The Red Shoes
After Ran, the ushers cleared out the auditorium. As I waited in the lobby, I noticed a healthy-sized crowd through the glass. Walking outside, I discovered there were dozens of people waiting to get inside. Folk of all different ages and walks of life. There was a giddy excitement in the air, and I could tell those in attendance really wanted to see this film. Clearly, The Red Shoes was an experience not to be missed. I've always heard great things about the film, and everyone I knew personally who knew it was screening today were disappointed they could not make it. Even my girlfriend had expressed regret at missing this weekend's screenings.
The Paramount Theatre was running a promotion in conjunction with this event, asking patrons to bring in used shoes for charity. It was a noble way for people to give back and provide for others. The front doors opened, and the excited masses started to pile in. A few milled around in the lobby, perusing the memorabilia cart and getting refreshments before the show, but most hurried into the auditorium to snag prime seating.
Now as I mentioned, The Red Shoes was one of those movies I had always heard about, but had never seen. I knew it was highly acclaimed, but I couldn't fathom why. Wasn't this about a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen story? How good can it possibly be? Such were the thoughts of a clueless youth. As my life went on, I found certain friends (usually with a dance or theater background) who swore by this movie. Based on the demographic, I could accept these people loving the film. Then I recall reading a few years back that Martin Scorsese was spearheading a campaign to restore this film. That, my friends, piqued my curiosity. It took the efforts of one of my favorite directors to finally place this film on my "must see" list. When the restored print made its debut last year, I knew I had to see it on the big screen if at all possible. On Saturday, that day had arrived. Replacing my camera back in my bag, I also ascended the stairs quickly so I could claim my seat as well. By the time the house lights dimmed, I was already grinning in anticipation.
Yes, The Red Shoes is about a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, but it is also soooo much more than that. It starts as a somewhat typical behind-the-scenes glimpse into a ballet company. A young dancer, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), is looking for a break into the industry. The head of the Ballet Lermontov, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) receives a solicitation from a well-to-do relative of hers to see her perform (i.e.- audition), which he refuses to do. He does extend an invite to his company, but she quickly learns that can be a bit of an empty gesture. Standing along the back wall with other "invitees," she witnesses how frantic the business can be, and how easy it is to be lost in the shuffle. She finally succeeds in making an impression on Lermontov, when he sneaks into the audience to glimpse her perform a matinee of "Swan Lake." It's the breakthrough she desired, and is invited to tour with the company.
At the same time, Lermontov recruits a young and talented composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), to be an orchestral coach. Young and ambitious as Ms. Page, he sets out to impress the cold ballet impresario; often overstepping his bounds in the process.
A calculating man with an uncompromising passion for the arts, Lermontov reveals the extent of his beliefs when his prized pupil marries and has to withdraw from the company to start a new life. Embittered, he begins to eye Page as a worthy successor. He aims to produce a ballet based on "The Red Shoes," with Page as its star and music composed by Craster.
And that's about as much about the plot as I dare reveal at this point. All of the narrative is a setup for the brilliance that follows. The film itself becomes a staggering work of genius. I was astonished to see a work from this time be so "meta" and self-referential in its execution. Anyone who thinks Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman broke down barriers in 2002's Adaptation needs to see this film. Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made an adaptation of the classic tale about people who are staging a production of the very same story. The reason it works in this film is because the players aren't aware of the parallels, but they slowly become apparent to the audience. In addition, the performances, choreography and photography combine into a beautiful medley.
The crowning achievement of the film is the ballet of "The Red Shoes" itself. It's presented as a 15 minute sequence in the middle of the movie, and it is glorious. What starts as a straight-forward presentation of the ballet on stage slowly integrates visual signatures of the cinematic medium, beginning with simple editing and progressing to visual tricks. Those effects are used for maximum impact, and the results are truly magical. Music, dance and cinema blend into a high art and majesty few can ever hope to attain. It's surrealistic and arresting. Slightly reminiscent (at times) of a live-action sequence from Disney's Fantasia, I can safely say I've never seen anything quite like that before. This ballet blew me (a seasoned movie-goer) away, now, in 2010. I can only imagine what it did to audiences back in 1948. It's a pure form of joy, and became one of the most striking sequences I've ever witnessed in a movie theater.
Staring at the screen, mouth agape at the gorgeous imagery in front of me, I was ever so grateful for the restoration of the film itself. The Red Shoes is awash in the inventiveness of the Technicolor process, drowning the senses in a sea of colors and hues. God bless Martin Scorsese and his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to director Michael Powell for several years before his death) for preserving such a seminal piece of cinema history. The work really showed with this stunning print on the big screen. I'm sure it does on blu-ray at home also, but I can't think of any presentation that can top what I saw on Saturday. The colors pop in a way that only the finest in Technicolor can provide. I was struck in particular by Shearer's beauty, whose red hair was so vivid it almost seemed afire. The ginger dancer was mesmerizing whether she was onscreen dancing or being guided by her own red shoes. In fact, the image was so remarkable that the entire film feels alive.
As the movie neared its climax, one could sense the impending doom and feel the anguish of a person torn between the passion of dance and the love of another soul. By the time the credits rolled, I suspect there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Tears or no, the audience showered the auditorium in applause. It was a wonderful experience for me, seeing this landmark combination of dance and film in a proper movie palace. The presentation was incredible, the story was sublime and The Red Shoes carried me to places I could have never imagined. Films like this are the moments I love to discover. And for this amazing evening at The Paramount... I am forever grateful and elated.