Tuesday, January 25, 2011
The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes opens with a mob of university students forcing their way in through the locked doors of the Covent Garden theater to get their seats at a production of "Hearts of Fire" put on by the famed Ballet Lermontov troupe. They storm up the stairs to the balcony and wait out the hour until the show starts with squeals of excitement and eager anticipation. Somehow, I doubt that any group of students--at any time in history--would get that worked up about a ballet performance, but this is a Powell and Pressburger's production, and it's their duty to glorify the spectacle, to render it at once sacred and accessible.
The Red Shoes is really two spectacles; first, it's a movie, with characters who triumph, argue, fall in love, and perform. There's something of a love triangle going on between rising star Vicki Page (Moira Shearer), composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). And then there's the famous ballet within the movie--not the first one that the students are wetting their pants over, but the ballet called "The Red Shoes", which lasts for about 20 minutes and, even if it only comes in about halfway through, is the films' real climax. But unlike the movie, which is presented to the audience as a work that's finished and whole, the spectacle that makes up the ballet is dissected even further. First Lermontov has to conceive the piece, and then attention has to be put into set design and choreography. Julian must compose the score and conduct the orchestra, and dancers must sweat, and bitch, and moan as dancers do. And then, when we have invested enough of ourselves into the enterprise and understood the enormous effort that goes into realizing such a creation, we are ready to see what happens when all of this comes together.
What happens is something quite splendid. Vicki spins her way though extravagant set after extravagant set with fiery grace, and eventually--as the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of "The Red Shoes" goes--dances herself to death. I'm not usually drawn to classical ballet, but I found much to admire in the intense physicality of the performance here. I also see why Powell and Pressbuger were so drawn, and why they wanted to detail ballet so thoroughly. Like cinema, it's a compound art form that places attention on movement, aesthetics, and music. Also like cinema, it was misunderstood for much of the early 20th century (Dhiagilev, the model for Lermontov, brought ballet back with the Ballets Russes in the 1910s). As one character says in the film "some of us think of ballet as a rather second rate art form." But most importantly, it's the perfect canvas for the tale of passion and obsession that P & P are so intrigued by. If dance replaces the religion and spirituality of Black Narcissus as the battleground where the rational and the irrational clash, it's because dance--for those who practice it--is a religion.
Unsurprisingly given the similarities in the theme and plot of these two movies, The Red Shoes falls prey to the same mistakes that plagued Black Narcissus. The majority of the film is so mild-mannered-- reserved, yet sparkling with wit and subdued eroticism--that the intensity of the actual climax is overwrought and not entirely convincing. But the film is a delight to watch, and with books about Dhiagilev making an entrance into the literary world and with Black Swan tearing up screens across America, it's as relevant as ever. There may not have been any riot to get into the showing I attended (just a few grumbles from the docile and scholarly crowd when the ticket seller didn't show up in time) but The Red Shoes is definitely something to get excited about.
P.S. Like The Leopard, this is one of Martin Scorsese's favorite movies of all time.