Monday, May 14, 2012

Movie review: The Red Shoes

The creative partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created many notable British films from the 1940’s to the late 1950’s. Known collectively as The Archers, The Red Shoes was the duo’s first resounding box office success. It also made a star out of redheaded Scottish ballet dancer and actress Moira Shearer, who later was given the title Lady Kennedy. A marvel of three strip Technicolor, The Red Shoes is an expensive but visually stunning motion picture.

Underneath the slowly unfolding drama is unstated, but implied gay subtext. Common to its era, this aspect of the film remained covert and subtle. Svengali Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) has committed the whole of his life to his work in charge of a ballet that bears his name. Immaculately clothed and sophisticated man of the world, Lermontov jealously guards his talent, particularly protégé Vicky Page (Shearer), a prima ballerina who he has plucked from obscurity. Lermontov is especially keen to control Vicky’s life in every possible manner. One might assume at first that he desires her romantically, but Lermontov’s behavior openly contradicts this.

Lermontov’s closeted homosexuality reveals itself in two crucial lines of dialogue. While witnessing early rehearsals, the impresario responds with ferocity, demanding utter perfection from his star. Expressing the most essential distillation of his personal philosophy, Lermontov’s countenance takes on a steely, driven, wild-eyed look. He speaks with autocratic certainty.

“A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love,” Lermontov proclaims, “will never be a great dancer. Never.”  When questioned as to whether or not this defies the laws of basic human desire, Lermontov forcefully responds, “I think you can do even better than that — you can ignore it."

Meanwhile, promising young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) has been hired by Lermontov to score a new ballet, an adaptation from a Hans Christian Anderson story entitled The Red Shoes. Vicky and Julian fall in love with each other and begin a relationship, which throws the possessive Lermontov into a fit. The impresario would closely control every element of Vicky’s life if he could. His reaction to their pleadings to be left in peace is cold, harsh contempt. If he can’t have a romantic relationship, no one else can either.

Plot aside, the cinematography of The Red Shoes is as important as the character development. Released in 1948, it is, as noted above, one of the last films to use the three strip Technicolor process. This color motion picture process was notably used stateside for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, two films now considered classics.

In some ways, the most stunning segment occurs around halfway through the picture. Advanced camera techniques, cinematic slight-of-hand, editing trickery, and brilliant camera work enhance an extended fifteen minute visual sequence, the introduction of the ballet. Without a score of trained hands at work, the audience might have otherwise easily grown thoroughly bored.

The Red Shoes is beholden to an earlier school of film craft than what followed afterwards. UK filmmakers, producers, and writers like The Archers sought to compete with Hollywood by proving that non-American movies could stand on equal footing. However, within ten years, an entire artistic movement would completely disown the opulence on display here.

A fanciful rendering of the aristocracy would be exchanged for the rough-hewn grit of the working class North of England. Stark black and white photography would replace the awe-inspiring but technically complicated (and expensive) shades of bluest blue, greenest green, and reddest red. The British New Wave to follow was more concerned with strict realism, not fantasy, however gorgeously concocted.         

It seems incomprehensible now that The Red Shoes did not achieve substantial popularity upon initial release. Its lush landscapes are almost worth the price of admission in and of themselves. Instead, the film became a sleeper hit. It was made a success primarily by word of mouth. The approach employed by The Archers defied the conventional wisdom of the time. For one, a meta-narrative is at work; the main plotline follows that of the ballet. The tragic ending will be identical both in reality and in art.          

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