Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Red Shoes - a film critique

The Red Shoes

written, directed and produced by

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Once upon a time there was a young girl who longed to dance the night away in a pair of red dancing slippers. She put them on and laced them up and she was off. She enjoyed herself immensely. Once the ball was over, she found that although she was exhausted, she was unable to stop dancing. Through the magic of the red shoes and Hans Christian Andersen, she was compelled to dance or die.

In 1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, directed and produced The Red Shoes, a film about a ballet company's production based on Andersen's fairy tale. It is a drama and a tragedy. It has been been called a romance as well, but the romantic love that is supposed to be felt by the main characters comes across as secondary to the love for their respective arts, dancing and music composition. In a way, this only contributes to the overall theme of the film, that to dance is to live, and one must sacrifice all else, including love, in order to become truly great.

The Red Shoes is beautifully made of vibrant colors, graceful movement, and an Oscar-winning musical score. These three elements appropriately combine to lift the viewer out of real life and into a more beautiful fairy tale kind of world in both the ballet and the offstage scenes. This is a story about music, and about dancing, and about color as well; the red of the ballet shoes is strongly symbolic of danger and disaster.

The cinematography and the editing are first-rate, and to me, are the most intriguing aspect of the film. Not only is Technicolor (which was relatively new at the time) used to full advantage, but the cameraman employs other creative techniques with great success. There are several different point-of- view shots throughout the film (especially during the ballet sequences) which lend an artistic quality that is often missing in more conventional films. Sometimes we are viewing the ballet as if perched in the rafters of the theater, sometimes from offstage, and even through the eyes of the principal ballerina as she pirouettes successively across the stage. In fact, rarely do we view the ballet from where an audience would traditionally be seated, seeing the entire stage at once before us. During the twenty minute performance of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, we are treated to an experience that would not be possible for a traditional ballet audience. The combination of stage and film works magic before our eyes. Dissolving and fading and superimposition by the editors make it possible to convey the ballerina's personal feelings to us as she dances. We suddenly see the image of her lover superimposed over her dance partner, or the imposing figure of the ballet impresario attempting to force her choice between love and his promise to make her the best dancer in all the world. During The Ballet of the Red Shoes sequence, we are able to feel the conflict that is tearing Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in half, and we realize that she is living in her real life the story she is portraying through the ballet: to dance is to live, not to dance is to die.

Moira Shearer beautifully and gracefully portrays Victoria Page, and not surprisingly, as she was a famous Scottish ballet dancer as well as an actress. In fact, many of the performers are both dancers and actors, which explains why the non-dance scenes are almost as smoothly executed as the ballet scenes. Anton Walbrook stars as Boris Lermontov, the head of the ballet company, and in spite of not being a professional dancer, manages to comport himself like one. Marius Goring as Julian Craster convinces us of his love for music and composing but not quite of his love for Victoria Page.

If one considers not just the credibility and power of the dialogue, but the plot and the means of carrying it out as part of the screenplay, one must judge the script to be exceptional. The parallel between the dancer's real life and the fairy tale of The Red Shoes is brilliant, and where it might disappoint a viewer who demands a happy ending, it doesn't disappoint one who appreciates a well-crafted story.

The editing of The Red Shoes shows great skill, not just as mentioned above in relation to The Ballet of the Red Shoes sequences, but throughout. The film flows smoothly in spite of being rather long. Various techniques are successfully employed to create fluidity, including one using shots of destination labels being pasted to wicker trunks in order to show the passage of time and the movement of the dance company between different cities.

As directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had a distinct style which came through in most of their work. Known for taking risks by making films that went against the prevalent trends of their day, Powell and Pressburger specialized in passion, beauty, and fantasy, all of which sing out in The Red Shoes. Many of their films, including this one, were projected box office failures, but managed not only to survive, but to succeed with audiences. Powell and Pressburger believed in their work, and believed in the ability of viewers to recognize them as the artists they truly were.

The Red Shoes has helped impress on me the importance of the arts, and has helped me to appreciate what must lie behind the scenes of any great work of art. It reminds me to consider and value the sacrifice that accompanies great art. The theme of The Red Shoes carries over into all art forms, including the making of a great film. To create is to live. This theme may apply in another sense as well. After all, Powell and Pressburger created a masterpiece that is very much alive decades after they finished production. To create is truly to live, and Powell and Pressburger and their unique style live on in their classic film, The Red Shoes.

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