Back To School: Powell & Pressburger // ‘The Red Shoes’

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Fellini, Godard, and Kurosawa “household names,” but if you mention them to the average moviegoer, there’s a good chance they’ve heard of them, even if they can’t name one of their works. But mention Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (also known as “The Archers”), and you’re likely to get a blank stare instead.

The Red Shoes has famously been heralded as Martin Scorsese’s favorite film and certainly seems a major source of inspiration for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Released in 1948, it has that dazzling Technicolor sheen, like a certain other famous film centered on a pair of crimson slippers. It makes me wish it was still possible for movies to look like this. The hues are too vivid to be quite realistic, but it’s especially appropriate given the heightened melodrama of the piece. Like The Wizard Of Oz, The Red Shoes is a fairy tale (based on one by Hans Christian Andersen), though this one takes place in the real world.

There are three central figures in the story — the promising, passionate young ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), an equally promising young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and the man who employs them at his ballet company, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Julian is such a good composer that his own professor passes Julian’s work off as his own, which leads Boris to ask Julian to replace him. But an even more promising ingenue is Victoria, for whom dancing is as vital as life itself. Boris draws the two into his new ballet, “The Red Shoes” — a tragic fairy tale about a woman whose red slippers won’t let her to stop dancing, leading to her death. Given Victoria’s claims that she can’t fathom a life without dance, it seems the role she was born (and perhaps doomed) to play.

Coming about midway through the movie, our fifteen-minute glimpse of “The Red Shoes” is the movie’s show-stopping centerpiece, and the primary reason why it is heralded as such a masterpiece. Shearer is a real ballerina (in her first role as an actress), which becomes quite obvious once we see her on srtage. (No offense to Black Swan, but there’s nothing like the real thing.) What we see of “The Red Shoes,” however, is not a mere truncated version of what its audience sees; it’s full of special effects that couldn’t possibly be done on stage. It’s distinctly cinema, not theater. While the effects are certainly not seamless by today’s standards, the sequence is still mesmerizing and still feels unique, and Léonide Massine dancing the part of the shoemaker is spellbinding and just the right amount of creepy.

But The Red Shoes doesn’t peak too early or run out of steam following that dazzling dance sequence, because that’s when the drama between the three central characters truly begins. Julian and Victoria fall in love, which offends Boris for inexplicable reasons. Is he in love with Victoria himself? In love with Julian, perhaps? Or can he just not accept that Victoria’s love of dance might coexist with her love for the musician, while his own passion for his work has never allowed for external romance? Whatever the reason, Boris’ obsession with keeping these two apart becomes all-consuming, compelling him to fire them both. Eventually, it puts Victoria in the painful position of having to choose between dancing “The Red Shoes” for Boris and her love for her new husband.

And she chooses… neither.

I suppose I should have been prepared for the tragic end to this story, having seen the way “Swan Lake” predicts the ending of Black Swan. (“Swan Lake” features prominently here, too, by the way.) But I wasn’t. In the film’s final moments, The Red Shoes takes a dark and devastating turn — particularly haunting in the way Boris responds with that old standby, “the show must go on.”

Though the first hour or so might come off as a bit padded these days, The Red Shoes is certainly worth a look for that innovative dance sequence and the crushing denouement. It’s a vivid melodrama with unforgettable imagery, in large part thanks to that eye-popping Technicolor. Surely one of the most beautiful films ever made.

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