2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’

The Red Shoes is one of the great films about passion. Its primary subject is ballet, a dance that drives the ambitions of Moira Shearer’s flowering danseuse, Victoria Page, Marius Goring’s aspiring composer, Julian Craster, and Anton Walbrook’s pitiless producer, Boris Lermontov. But an equally devotional approach could just as well be applied to theater and literature, painting and poetry, even sports and politics. This 1948 production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is about all-consuming desire and self-defining obsession, no matter the field. That’s why so many film directors and film enthusiasts also admire the picture, empathizing with its themes and its depiction of avid mania. For if The Red Shoes is about all of this, it is most certainly about cinema.

Despite the determined direction in which The Red Shoes ascends (and subsequently descends), this fervor isn’t always so solemn, at least not at first. During the film’s opening performance by the Ballet Lermontov, at Covent Garden Opera House, music student Julian is joined by a gaggle of clamoring young aficionados, reveling in the work of esteemed professor Palmer (Austin Trevor) and renowned dancer Irina Boronskaya (Ludmilla Tchérina), venerating one over the other, it seems, as these devotees are divided into distinct fandoms. The delight goes south, however, when Julian realizes the music he hears doesn’t belong to Palmer but has in fact been lifted from his own composition. It’s a disheartening revelation to be sure, yet it initiates the young man’s eventual introduction to Lermontov, the guiding force of his burgeoning career. That same evening provides a similar impetus for Vicky, courtesy of her benefactor aunt (the implicit value of economic privilege and social standing, insofar as it can determine success, runs throughout The Red Shoes). Vicky is given the chance to impress reluctant Lermontov, although that recital falters before it ever begins. Nevertheless, while she and Julian embark upon their occupational-artistic journeys with innocent intentions, wide-eyed and untainted, this fateful night proves to be a portentous primer in the ways of veiled fixation. Living their lives as they have been, the accustomed norms of practice and performance soon face the disappointments of a life that can no longer compete. Meeting with a man like Lermontov, who is encumbered by societal detachment but is also a personified gateway to achievement, Julian and Vicky discover what can happen when one’s chosen form dominates one’s very existence.

Based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes unfolds along a fairly standard storyline, as a sort of allegorical fable with an ample formula of artistic aspiration and romantic assumption. Similarly, none of the three main characters are given much in the way of backstory, largely because their generic types are likewise so recognizable. And as Powell and Pressburger advance the enveloping backstage setting, the behind-the-scenes plotlines comingle with a time-honored love story slant and several seen-it-before showbiz clichés: the Svengali, the rising star, the jealous suitor, etc. Still, these customary characterizations in no way suppress the performances, first among them, Moira Shearer. Crowned by a cloud of flaming red hair, Shearer’s diminutive stature can scarcely contain her tremendous physical and emotional vitality. A 21-year-old member of the Sadler’s Wells Company, with no prior film experience, Shearer was hesitant to take on the role of Vicky, waiting nearly a year before agreeing to do so. Even if she would rarely return to moviemaking afterwards — the noteworthy exceptions being the Powell-Pressburger 1951 feature The Tales of Hoffmann and Powell’s notorious, brilliant solo effort, Peeping Tom (1960) — her practical expertise lends the entire picture an immeasurable degree of authenticity (and she isn’t alone; Lermontov’s inner circle also features characters played by Australian ballet star Robert Helpmann, Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, and Tchérina, a celebrated ballerina in real life).

Shearer displays an enthusiastic conviction, easily adopting her position as a capable, congenial heroine (“adorably natural” is how Powell puts it), but it is Walbrook who has the heftiest role, as Lermontov conveys a breadth of behavioral capacity, from chilly charm to absolute domination. He is almost gentle as he assures rejected dancers that there simply wasn’t enough room in the company — it’s not that they aren’t talented. On the other hand, he is utterly ruthless in the execution of his vision. His ostentatious manner is seductive and sophisticated, while his egomaniacal coaching can be at once cruel and paternal. He is also petty, indirectly chiding Vicky when she dares to get engaged and stirring up interpersonal animosity between the ranks: “The music is all that matters,” he tells Vicky, appearing to denigrate her balletic contributions compared to Julian’s compositional qualities, “nothing but the music.” Yet there is something immensely tragic about Lermontov, a shaky, fallible pride. He is wounded when Vicky veers toward “idiotic flirtations,” rather than artistic dedication, and he struggles to downplay his disappointment when left out of a company birthday party, perhaps inducing some guilt among the merrymakers when he spitefully refers to them as his “family.” And in the end, whether it be due to some sexual ambivalence or a shred of vulnerability, he nearly alienates a whole roster of surrounding talent, necessary to his own livelihood, simply because of his dictatorial stubbornness.

Like Walbrook, a familiar face in the Powell-Pressburger canon (49th Parallel, 1941, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943) Goring was also a fixture in the team’s corpus, having appeared in their first joint feature, The Spy in Black (1939), and in 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven). Goring submits a solid, resounding performance, particularly as he attempts to fortify himself as a fine composer in his own right (he is rather less interesting as a romantic lead). What distinguishes Shearer and Walbrook from Goring, though, is that while the latter transfers an evident sense of performance, of playing a separable character, the other two supply a supplementary layer of legitimacy. Shearer so flawlessly embodies an aspirational young dancer, prone to the dictates of the form and the demands of its commercial requisites, because she herself was one. With Walbrook, his genuine reserve, his actual penchant for dark sunglasses and social isolation, help to suggest the corresponding demeanor of Lermontov. She is petite grace, he is brooding severity; as performers and characters, they are conflicting and complimentary. He refers to his chosen field as a “religion,” while she delivers the most important line of the film: “Why do you want to dance?” Lermontov pompously asks the young ingénue. “Why do you want to live?” Vicky counters. “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but… I must.” Sealing their fate and establishing their kindred passion, she responds, “That’s my answer too.”

By 1937, Powell had moved beyond his innocuous “quota quickies” and had directed his first significant feature, The Edge of the World. And by the early 1940s, he and Pressburger had united for one extraordinary film after another, ultimately forming the writer-producer-director alliance known as The Archers, first credited in 1942’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. It was Pressburger who had in the 1930s drafted a script about a ballet, at the behest of legendary producer Alexander Korda, but other projects and World War II derailed any further development. After the conflict, and having already staked a claim for stylishly realized, quintessentially British productions —The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale (1944), A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus (1947) among them — Powell and Pressburger returned to the subject and began The Red Shoes. Enhanced by the Technicolor paintbrush of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, an Oscar winner for his astonishing work on Black Narcissus, the resulting picture is one of cinema’s foremost visual delights. Augmenting multiple planes of any given backdrop, its meticulous production design is a testament to the film’s stellar team of artisans, and its glorious use of color goes beyond vibrant, beyond reality, becoming, as Martin Scorsese has declared, like character in itself. This wouldn’t be the first nor the last Powell-Pressburger feature to emphasize this type of lavish, pictorial arrangement, but The Red Shoes is notable for how patently it generates the integral facets of its theatrical milieu, with textured illumination creating a tangible light, accentuating the atmospheric smoke and shadow, the dust and glass, plastic and plywood, silk and plaster. The world of The Red Shoes comes alive in every frame.

Adding to its self-consciously rendered cinematic construction, underscoring the essence of artful artifice, the film flaunts overtly stylized costumes and makeup, and showcases the ingenuity of a plume of smoke and well-arranged sounds to suggest a passing train, or matte backdrops to enrich the already wonderous Monte Carlo scenery. Generally assigned the directorial duties of the Powell-Pressburger tandem, the former creates a film that infuses painterly compositions with histrionic music (Brian Easdale received an Oscar for his score) and, of course, spirited dance. The first realization of this artistic amalgam comes with Vicky’s intense pirouette performance in “Swan Lake.” Abetted by Shearer’s dexterity, Powell serves up a subjective series of rapid whip pans as the exuberant star dances– “full out” as Lermontov will later enforce — abruptly freezing the motion with penetrating close-ups, piercing eyes and breathless expressions. The coup de grâce, though, is the film’s central showcase, the performance of “The Red Shoes” ballet. This is a remarkable display of individual choreography, color, slow motion, rudimentary special effects and scenic assembly (like Easdale, Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson also won Academy Awards, theirs for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration). Powell and company expand the canvas, opening up a realm of limitless depth, height and width, launching a haunting, engrossing orbit, born from private projection (Vicky’s) and free from the constraints of time and space. The cinematic conglomeration devised by Powell for this sequence alone is a dazzling union of filmic form: the abstract dreamscapes of expressionism, the internal fury of impressionism and the whimsical illusions of surrealism. Here and elsewhere, The Red Shoes dynamically crosses from reality to fantasy, befitting a film that is itself a grand fiction, simultaneously reflecting and critiquing a true reality. That’s the power of cinema — that’s the power of The Red Shoes.

What was already an ambitious production becomes emphatically audacious with this 15-minute ballet sequence, which seems to stop the narrative cold. Indeed, critics of The Red Shoes chalked up the interlude to pure aesthetic excess. In any case, what is now a justly revered spectacle is actually a central moment of the film, and the performance is a turning point for all involved. It is at this moment, following the much-lauded feat, that a confident Vicky, Julian and Lermontov confront an inevitable pivot, to remain at the top or face declining distinction. They are not joyless in their triumph, nor is the tone of the film, but a torturous undercurrent remains. It’s applicable to all who succeed in the arts. How do you top your latest success? They’ve made it this far, so what comes next? What are they willing to do to sustain this degree of accomplishment?

Some of the film’s stodgier detractors deemed the ending of the picture too gruesome and pessimistic, even disturbing in its overwhelming frenzy (that much it is, though nothing compared to the Andersen source, where the young girl has her feet lobbed off with an axe and, as Powell puts it, “danced to Heaven on the stumps”). But this is where it was all leading. When telling Julian about the “The Red Shoes” ballet, Lermontov says it is the “story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.” To this, Julian asks, “What happens in the end?” “Oh, in the end,” replies Lermontov, as cool and as casually pragmatic as can be, “she dies.”

Existence hangs in the balance. Art, to quote the earlier Powell-Pressburger film, is a matter of life and death. “We had all been told for 10 years to go out and die for freedom and democracy,” writes Powell in his autobiography, “and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” The film becomes much like a myth or a legend, a cautionary fairy tale about obsession, about the supremacy of an insatiable drive and unremitting hunger. Emotional attachments waver, becoming almost secondary in the bargain. As in seen in The Red Shoes, this potentially detrimental path is easily and hastily plotted. One minute, someone can be swept away in a dizzying, prolonged stairway descent, rushing to their disillusioned love; the next minute, there is nothing but an empty spotlight in their place. And still, this can be a risk worth taking. The notion of sacrificing all to one’s devotion is not wholly unreasonable or unappealing. There is a fine line between ruin and self-fulfillment, and some are willing to continually straddle that line. Lermontov is one who can. As he asserts in a statement to temporarily sway Vicky’s reticence (and it shows where he stands), “Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant.” It’s this mindset that makes the illustrious impresario such a curmudgeon. But it’s also what makes him such a success. It is art above all else.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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