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Here's what you ought to know about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger:
1) They collaborated to make the film Black Narcissus, which of all the films out there not starring Richard Roundtree is the one that most ought to have starred Richard Roundtree. Come on people, now. Get with me on this. Yeah, I know it’s about nuns in the Himalayas. But it’s called Black Narcissus, for Pete’s sake. Put Rich in it. Call George Lucas and splice him in there. Get Isaac Hayes to do a soundtrack.
2) They are beloved by serious film critics and filmmakers, and have influenced the influential - crowd-pleasers like Spielberg, craftsmen like Scorsese. Their contribution to world cinema is writ large.
3) They are responsible for The Red Shoes, a postmodern take on the Hans Christian Anderson fable, a study of the demands of art on the artist, the glory of excellence, and the best cinematic study of theatrical performance I’ve ever seen. This movie is a gem, a stunner. Go find it.
The Red Shoes stresses a heightened reality throughout, reflecting the heightened reality of the live theater, of ballet, of opera. The Technicolor is glorious, a little too glorious to be real – each hue glows as though lit from within. We open without preamble on an audience entering a theater on the opening night of a new ballet. Characters are introduced to us helter-skelter, we are given no clue as to which who might be important and who might be peripheral. We are expected to take what we see and adapt, an apt description of the treatment two young artists will be given when they join the ballet the next morning. They will be invited, but they will not be welcomed until they engrave their own invitation, by proving their worth.
Six young people gather together in the balcony, excited to see the show. Two of them do not know the other four. Soon some of them will soon leave, angrily, but of the six we will only see one in later scenes. A young woman and her aunt watch from the balcony. There is a tension here, an expectation. An impresario (Anton Walbrook) watches from his box. His name is Boris Lermontov, and we eventually discover that he is the director of the company. Cruel and charming, he has stifled his humanity for the sake of his art, and is proud of doing so. He expects nothing less from his troupe. Art is not entertainment for him, it is a jealous religion, which consumes such petty things as joy and love. His company is his family, and he rules it impassively and absolutely. Now, these two new members are about to arrive: a dancer and a composer. Both are talented and passionate, and will eventually collaborate on a new ballet, based on the Anderson story "The Red Shoes".
Anderson’s story is of a woman wears magical red shoes that allow her to dance all night. But the woman tires; the shoes do not. They demand to dance, and in the end they dance her to death. Powell and Pressburger’s story is of dance as an art demanding life. Dance is the filmmaker’s stand-in for art with a capital “A”. As the three principals – composer, dancer and Lermontov the artistic svengali – draw closer together and clash, so too does Art and emotion, and in this conflict the turmoil of the ballet is mirrored. The film The Red Shoes, then, is simultaneously a story about the creation of a ballet called The Red Shoes and a modernized retelling of HC Anderson story The Red Shoes from which the ballet is based, while also serving as a thematic actualization of both. Trippy stuff for 1948, compadre.
The ultimate triumph of The Red Shoes, the film, is its depiction of The Red Shoes, the ballet, which is shown in its entirety, gradually moving from the realm of the possible to a gorgeous and eerie impressionistic dreamscape – a fantastical space filled with fantastical creatures, less a dance than a purely cinematic confection, the film a distilled essence of those emotions dance (and, by corollary, all of Art) can evoke. Dance has been the stand-in for all art, but this dance could only exist in the art form of cinema – the boudaries of Art have been pushed down, and the true possibility of film begins to bloom. The result is breathtaking; there is one shot of a human mass become a flower that is one of the most indelible images I have seen on screen. Much of the credit for this goes to the cinematographer and the art director, and to Powell himself. Equal credit should be given the dancers, led by Moria Shearer in a fantastic performance. Some actors can dance. This, to me, seems a dancer who can act.
Anton Walbrook is amazing as Boris, at turns imperious and condescending, then polite and refined, at times encouraging, at times brutal, but always driven with his one monstrous love, which is the dance. For Boris, there are no part-time artists; amateurs to him are more than disgusting, they are profane. He sees himself as a kind of high priest, who assays the talent and casts out any who bring less than full commitment to his God. Those who make room for love, for a life of their own, have not understood. Art is demanding as those murderous red shoes, a pure fire that consumes everything, and leaves truth and beauty behind in its char. Why try to bring less than all?
The most subversive element of The Red Shoes is that, while our sympathies are with the young couple, the film itself seems to agree with Boris. Boris is never painted as a villain, even as his entrenched views tear his company apart and move the narrative closer to the edge of tragedy. Could he have prevented conflict by choking back? Yes, but at the expense of the dance. Art is always; love is fleeting. “Some day,” says the young composer, “I will be able to tell my grandchildren I was in love with the great dancer.” He is not worthy; he already sees the end. Their interlude will be as transient as the night, but the beauty they create on stage will not fade. Boris’ greatness is that he realizes this. His tragic failure is that he arrogantly equates loyalty to art with loyalty to himself.
And now, just for sheer weirdness, and because YouTube disallows embedding of all the actual clips available from the movie, here's something somebody put together with this film and a Joy Division song.