Ah, ’tis a sad day here in the land of Movie Yammers. Once upon a time (aka the beginning of 2014) S. and J. had a happy prospect ahead of them: six whole films by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Why, six films is almost an eternity of entertainment! And so we ventured forth through the dizzying days of Colonel Blimp to the Himalayan heights of Black Narcissus. But through it all we knew one day the Powell & Pressburger films (as well as our capacity for alliteration) would come to an end, and so they have with The Red Shoes (1948). And while we might no longer be dancing through Canterbury or Scotland — much less through the heavens themselves — The Red Shoes is a pretty grand way to end a run like no other on the Sight & Sound list. Loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the film recounts the story of three ambitious artists — a ballerina, a composer, and the director of a ballet troupe — as they struggle to balance love and art. Like the filmmakers’ Black Narcissus, plotting and character development are often a bit secondary in The Red Shoes, with the focus more on raw emotion and artistry than reason or sense. And through its kinetic ballet scenes and painterly blasts of Technicolor, The Red Shoes overwhelms with a torrent of visual splendor and daring quite unlike any other film. So, as David Bowie once insisted, “Let’s dance!” (135 min.)
J. – It’s a bummer to realize that we no longer have any Powell & Pressburger flicks left on the docket, because I really, really, really enjoyed all six of their list movies — even the ones that had some pretty serious flaws. And I think that speaks to their inventiveness and willingness to really push the boundaries of movie storytelling. I think it also has to do with the way that the filmmakers are so forthright with their handling of their characters’ emotions. Characters are frequently stripped bare in Powell & Pressburger films, a rawness that one doesn’t particularly associate with the British but that can be deeply affecting.
What I find interesting is that this emotional intensity seems to grow with each passing film, reaching something of screaming crescendo in this movie — even more so than the crazed ending of Black Narcissus. And that emotional intensity is probably the thing that both elevates and sinks The Red Shoes, which might be both the best and the worst of the six Powell & Pressburger films on the list. That’s not as contradictory as it sounds when one considers the structure of the movie, which can be split into three distinct components that could almost be mini movies of their own: the lead up, the performance, and the aftermath. For the moment I’ll just say that two of those components worked like gangbusters for me, one decidedly did not.
S. – The lead up to the performance is brimming with energy. The burning ambitions of the three lead characters combine into a driving force that is wonderful to get pulled into. At the centre of the film is Boris Lermontov (compellingly portrayed by Anton Walbrook), the tyrannical director of the ballet company. From the outset his judgemental and superior attitude that cares only for perfection is infused with a charisma that draws you in, when his behaviour should really push you away. For this reason I could fully understand why the immensely talented Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and Julian Craster (Marius Goring) trail happily in his wake even though he is frequently dismissive of their efforts or even downright cruel to them. The quiet, yet fierce determination of ballerina Page to satisfy Lermontov’s standards and her own brought a palpable intensity to the dancing. I am not a fan of the ballet but she was amazing to watch. I was a little less enamoured with Craster, while I did buy the dedication and drive of the composer his awkwardness was more grating than endearing to me. My disconnect with the Craster character didn’t really matter through most of the film, but it does become a problem in later scenes. Personal preferences aside, the set up of this ambitious trio was masterfully done.
J. – The first part of The Red Shoes is fantastic, and one of the few films that really engages with the experience of being an artist in a manner that is grounded and work-a-day but still exciting. So many stories of artists are about inspiration, freedom and genius, and the hard work is relegated to a montage sequence or two. The Red Shoes doesn’t go that route — for all its beauty and pageantry this is a story of determination and grit. Both Victoria and Julian think that they have gotten their big break only to realize the harsh reality that they’ve only been given a chance to get on the first rung of the ladder. And what’s wonderful about this movie is that it then focuses not on the obvious talents of these two characters, but rather their having to prove themselves to the one man who can make and break their careers. It is a huge credit to Anton Walbrook’s incredible skill and presence that he can take that place so convincingly, with his Lermontov not being an obstacle to Vicky and Julian fulfilling their genius but rather the key to it. I’m sure we’ll get back to Walbrook, but I think it might be good to dive into Moira Shearer and Marius Goring a little more before we get to the actual performance.
It was a gutsy move by Powell & Pressburger to get an actual ballerina and hope that she can handle the acting side of things as well — and I think Shearer absolutely holds her own. Being a dancer she has incredible poise, and she uses her physicality to her advantage throughout the film, letting her determination and pride show through her posture and bearing. She brings a believable fire to the role and is definitely convincing on an emotional and performance level when things go haywire in the final act. Marius Goring is a bit of a different story. I know you didn’t particularly care for Goring in this film, S. In truth he is the weak link of the lead trio. And that is a double shame, first because he was quite delightful as the fey French aristocrat in A Matter of Life and Death, and second because I think he is very good during the first half of The Red Shoes. I know you rejected him pretty much from the outset, S., but I thought he was well suited to the role of a young musical genius struggling with his ego. But he was a cerebral artist — a bit of an awkward loser with an ever-inflating sense of self. So the film works wonderfully when Goring’s Julian Craster is in opposition or uneasy collaboration with the fiery and physical Victoria Page, but he doesn’t have the presence or charisma to be her partner. That’s going to be a problem.
S. – I enjoyed the way the two proteges grated against each other as they were thrown together to create The Red Shoes ballet under Lermontov’s critical eye. Having fought their way into the spotlight both artists work with a fury to realise his vision for the performance. There is a real sense that all three of the protagonists are spurring each other on to greater heights. The seemingly disparate personalities of Vicky and Craster work well here as both artists are pushing themselves to the limit to create something spectacular, it makes sense that such introspective and focussed personalities would require the mediation of a knowledgeable master. All of this blood, sweat and tears culminate in a fantastical performance as the ballet finally hits the stage. Instead of presenting a protracted dance routine Powell & Pressburger take the viewers on a flight of fantasy, where a surreal blend of imagery overlays and passes through the merger of Vicky’s phenomenal dancing with Craster’s musical masterpiece. The scene is incredible and in keeping with the P&P trademark of pushing the cinematic boundaries of storytelling. Amidst all the dazzling movement and sound there is a moment where you feel that the two performers own their success and really see each other for the first time, without the overbearing influence of their domineering director.
J. – Indeed they do, but that is going to spell disaster.
But before we get there I’ll stick with the performance of The Red Shoes ballet. For starters, HOLY CRAP! Is there a better dance sequence in the history of film? Some might be more fun or more kinetic, but I doubt any others have such grace, majesty and outright visual bravado. It’s just a non-stop barrage of amazing moments for about 15 glorious minutes, and I love how it just flings itself free from the stage to a much, much bigger canvas, using a wide array of techniques to conjure musical visions. To me the fantastical nature of the big ballet sequence was brilliant for a very specific reason. As I mentioned in our yammer on Children of Paradise, one thing that drives me up the wall in any film is to insist that a particular artist or performer is a genius. Because that is a damn hard thing to live up to, and if what you show me on the screen doesn’t match that billing, I’m going to call shenanigans. Children of Paradise suffers from this problem, as the actors’ onstage performances in that film don’t inspire the same riotous passion in me as they apparently do among the onscreen audience. But by ignoring reality altogether and taking a heightened, fantastical approach The Red Shoes transcends the stage and the music and the choreography and the dancing. It becomes an impossible performance, a representation of pure inspiration in the mind. You come away from those 15 minutes really and truly believing that Vicky and Craster have shown the world that they are geniuses. And that is an astounding achievement.
Unfortunately, it is also the indisputable climax of the film, and there’s about an hour left to go…
S. – So true. Returning to the everyday world after The Red Shoes spectacular was a big ask and the disconnect was too much for me. The relationship drama that spins out from this point has interesting elements but lacks the passion we have just seen writ large on stage. Walbrook is still amazing as the monomaniac reacting badly to his loss of complete control over the lives of his star performers. Just as Lermontov believed that Vicky and Craster’s devotion to performing was as pure as his own, the discovery that they were romantically involved leaves him feeling betrayed and he reacts bitterly.
The problem for me is that the relationship between Vicky and Craster doesn’t come across as genuine. Sure there is that killer moment up on stage yet when we see them together I don’t feel there is any chemistry there. Craster is still as driven as ever about his work, yet seems politely distant from his muse. On the other hand Vicky does convey a greater conflict between her relationship and her art although it seems to me the dancing would win hands down given her demeanor on stage versus the lukewarm energy on the home front. The passion captured in the titular performance had all leaked away by the time the finale was reached making Vicky’s fateful decision more confusing than an inevitable conclusion. The tribute to the missing star during the final stage performance was a nice touch, but I did feel that the final act was fumbled which was a huge let down after the first two-thirds of the film.
J. – I agree completely with all you’ve said here. The third part of the film stumbles badly through the inept handling of Craster and Vicky’s romance, which has essentially no spark whatsoever, particularly when compared to the passion of the first two parts of the film. I would add, however, that I think this is partly due to the script and not just our inability to envision the awkward, weedy Craster with the driven bombshell Vicky. The third part of the movie largely leaves the two lovers to focus on Walbrook’s character, thereby making it nigh impossible to see how Vicky and Craster’s relationship has effected their work and their art. It’s hard to blame Powell & Pressburger for wanting to keep the camera trained on Anton Walbrook — I mean, the man is astounding. He’s so good throughout this movie, and he has an ability to communicate through his eyes like no performer I’ve ever seen. But all that Walbrook goodness ultimately doesn’t serve the story down the stretch. And by pulling the tale too far away from the lovers, we are at too great a distance to buy into the emotional turmoil of the closing minutes. And that is a damn shame, because there is so much to love in The Red Shoes that it feels unfair to end this yammer with the film’s failings. So as I said at the top, while the last third of The Red Shoes may represent (in my opinion) the worst of Powell & Pressburger’s Sight & Sound run, the first two-thirds are absolutely their best. And after seeing these six remarkable movies, that is definitely saying something.