Friday, May 25, 2018

The Red Shoes (1948)

UK, 134 minutes
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Hans Christian Andersen, Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, Michael Powell
Photography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Brian Easdale
Editor: Reginald Mills
Cast: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Esmond Knight

I love the swooning romantic pulse of The Red Shoes by the Archers (codirectors and cowriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). It's magical, of course—a technicolor movie full of special effects based on a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale—but it bears a dark and keen edge as well. While the narrative frets over questions of art, love, and sacrifice, perhaps its most germane features are that it was designed by a painter, cast with professional ballet dancers, and dreamily hops about Europe, from London to Paris to Monte Carlo, like there had never just been two great wars and a major economic depression. Mostly it stays indoors within the world of theater and make-believe.

The gist of the fairy tale is that the red shoes are tools of Satan, the color being the giveaway by which he may be known. They tempt a young girl with their handsome fashionable charm and then, once she puts them on, cause her to dance without surcease until she falls down dead (no obvious relation to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). The Japanese horror version from 2005 is more true to the Andersen story, which does not include even one artist but rather mostly just goodly humble church people. In turn, there are none of those here. Or, if there are, their house of worship is more like the backstage rehearsal space and the holy sacrament of art, Art, ART. In fact, the real star of The Red Shoes is not the young girl, but a character Andersen never conceived at all: the svengali impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who is the veritable Jesus, Buddha, and Rasputin of art.

Lermontov lives for the musical theater. "The music is all that matters," he says until we're bored with it. "Nothing but the music!" No one has ever been more committed to this ethos than Lermontov, save possibly Martin Scorsese, who idolized him in the dark of New York playhouses when The Red Shoes was still considered an embarrassing failure by its producers. Scorsese's movies are full of committed obsessives like Lermontov. In an early encounter with the woman he decides he will mold into greatness, Lermontov asks, "Why do you want to dance?" Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) responds, "Why do you want to live?" and oh, snap, that is the right answer.

But wait, there's still one more tormented genius artist in this picture. That's the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Lermontov conveniently discovers him the same weekend he discovers Page. Craster is a #MeToo nightmare if ever there was one. Lermontov is a #MeToo nightmare too, of course—it's a 1948 picture, and strutting ego is the name of the game, even in these holy art circles—but he wants to control women to the extent of forcing them to realize their talent. "You cannot have it both ways," Lermontov declares. "The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never!" Both Lermontov and Craster deny the power of choice to women, but Craster turns out to be more the garden variety type who wants a housekeeper. None of it is from the fairy tale and much is little more than made-to-order melodrama, so don't be distracted.

The real pull of The Red Shoes is the strange intense visual vibe (as weird in its way as Black Narcissus the year before, but here at least the Archers have ballet for cover) and especially the pure sensation of the dance sequences, notably "The Ballet of the Red Shoes," which shows up midway and runs about 20 minutes. Ostensibly, even formally, it is non-cinematic, a recording of a dance performance on a stage. We see, from the audience's point of view in the seats, the curtain open, and then the camera tracks in to the performance, and before you know it The Red Shoes is anything but non-cinematic, with a camera moving inside the performers' space, close-ups, cuts for effect, and then, most audacious of all, physically impossible special effects. They are somewhat crude but completely effective: in a flash-cut the red shoes put themselves on the dancer. The dancer glides from world to world of hugely elaborate matte paintings. She falls a long way and lands easy. A scrap of newspaper takes human form and dances, and then becomes human. A mysterious group of aborigines appears and disappears.

The movie's figurative response to snorting doubters at this point is a middle finger. It doesn't care whether you believe in it. That's one of the things I like most about it—it's really committed to this. In that way it is most true to my sense anyway of a fairy tale. By contrast, the world of Andersen's story is a good deal more churchy and dreary than this movie, which feels a timeless part of certain enduring strains of art worship: cults of Picasso, Dali, and Warhol. Lermontov is a first-rate jerk, and kind of an idiot in his own way, but as an artist he is a heroic ideal, utterly devoted to his vision, which is often true vision and thus capable of creating things you can't believe you are seeing.

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