Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring
A lot of you may be skeptical that I'm reviewing a ballet film from the '40s, but this is easily one of the most beautiful films of all time and comes with the highest recommendation possible. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Powell and Pressburger, this is one of their most famous films and is a great place to start. Known as The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed a long lasting artistic partnership, where they wrote, directed, produced, and edited a series of wonderful films.
The Red Shoes is based on the Hans Christen Andersson fairytale about a girl who dons a pair of cursed red dancing shoes that cause her to dance to death. A young ballerina, Victoria Page, auditions for a prestigious ballet company and gradually wins the attention of the impresario owner, Lermontov, who helps her become famous. She also begins to fall in love with the company's genius new composer, Julian. Lermontov is enraged at this match and fires Julian, forcing Vicky to choose between love or ballet. When they flee and marry, Victoria's heart is torn in two. How can she chose between dancing, her life, and her husband, the love of her life? When Lermontov woos her back for one final performance of "The Red Shoes" she has to make an ultimately impossible choice. Within this narrative plot is also the ballet of "The Red Shoes," which is where Vicky dances her most important role as a ballerina and Julian writes his first important score.
The cinematography is by the late, great Jack Cardiff who used Technicolor to its best effect and it is unlikely that you will see this film's visual equal. Certain effects are dated, but this is undeniably the finest performance/ballet related film ever made. Pressburger originally wrote the screenplay for the great Alexander Korda and his wife Merle Oberon, but when Corda didn't use it the Archers made the film themselves. It is considered a classic and is one of the highest grossing British films in history.
Another amazing element of the film is the use of famous dancers like Massine and Tcherina. Helpmann, who was involved as a dancer, also choreographed "The Red Shoes" ballet. A lot of the extra dancers and corps de ballet were from the Royal Ballet. Particularly brilliant was their use of a professional ballerina as the star. Moira Shearer is one of those unique performers who was a talented ballet dancer, capable actress, and beautiful woman. She is perfect as Vicky and solidifies the film.
Actually, all the performances are wonderful. Marius Goring's portrayal of composer Julian Craster is energetic and sympathetic, partly because he doesn't fit what I would think of as a standard leading man type. My personal favorite is Anton Walbrook's powerful performance as Boris Lermontov. Walbrook was a Powell and Pressburger regular and is one of my favorite actors from the period. He is charismatic and powerful, drawing the artists to him like moths to a flame. Allegedly his character is based on Sergei Diaghilev, the enigmatic but temperamental leader of the Ballets Russe. Pressburger may have used the famous story of the scandal that occurred when Nijinsky married a lead ballerina in the company. In a rage, Diaghilev fired them both.
This is absolutely one of my favorite films of all time. During a recent day sick in bed, I watched the film three times in a row and still got new things out of it. There are strange undercurrents of repressed sexuality and exacting morality, as well as a constant air of foreboding. Lermontov's absolute denial of sex, love, and emotion in favor of the creation of art is something that threatens Vicky, but she is tempted to give herself over to it. The creation of a legacy through art vs biological, sexual reproduction is a serious choice for her, arguably as it is for all artists, particularly female artists of the time. When women married, they were expected to give up any professional life or career. Though Julian loves Vicky, this is also what he expects. She cannot have both, though he is allowed to purse his career as a composer and conductor.
This ultimate sacrifice propels The Red Shoes towards its fabulous ending that is sufficiently ambiguous. Is Vicky responsible for the tragedy or is it the shoes? Everything in this film is subtle and complex with intense emotion churning constantly under the surface. Even if you have no special love for ballet, see this film. It is particularly relevant for anyone who understands the feeling that one's art is as critical to life as breath.
After a lengthy process, it was completely restored and released by Criterion. The edition is wonderful and includes a lot of exciting special features. There is an amazing commentary with cast and crew, a novelization of the film and the original story read by Jeremy Irons, tons of press material, etc. Buuuy iiiiit noooow.