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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Powell and Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes'

now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the 
Criticwire Classic of the

“The Red Shoes”
Dir: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger
Criticwire Average: A+

One would be advised to not watch other films shot in color immediately after viewing “The Red Shoes,” lest every other movie look bland by comparison. Shot at the height of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s reign at the top of British cinema as The Archers, “The Red Shoes” is as lush as films get, an expressive Technicolor masterwork that influenced directors and artists ranging from Martin Scorsese to Brian De Palma, Darren Aronofsky to Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli (as the Minnelli-directed, Kelly-starring “An American in Paris” shows). It also stands as one of the best films ever made about the pull between desires for both personal and creative fulfillment, and the ruin that lies in between.

Dancer Moira Shearer stars as Victoria “Vicky” Page, a young woman from an aristocratic background who falls in with dance impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Lermantov has recently hired composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) after initially stealing his work, and Julian soon falls in love with Vicky. But Lermontov is a demanding man, one who believes her love for Julian will distract Vicky, and, soon she must make a choice between vocation and love.

It’s a simple set-up, but none of these three figures are simple characters. Walbrook’s Lermontov seems autocratic and, certainly, somewhat jealous of Vicky’s love for Julian, but he is also capable of tenderness and mercy, as when he releases Vicky from her contract late in the film. Julian, meanwhile, is as hotheaded as he is loving, while Shearer’s ebullient Vicky has a sadness to her that grows more pronounced as the film goes on. These men compete for her affection and devotion, both pushing and pulling at her, both turning her into a wreck.

It’s an emotionally overwhelming experience, and it isn’t aided by Jack Cardiff’s sumptuous photography so much as it’s transformed into something almost indescribably, transcendently beautiful. Red was never as lovely as when the titular shoes or Shearer’s flowing hair were caught by Cardiff and the Archers on film. The camera glides as Shearer dances in the film’s central ballet performance, and the edits and camera tricks turn moments of the shoes self-lacing or a dancer turning into a newspaper (and back again) into pure magic. It’s a glorious standalone set-piece, but it’s also the moment where the full power of the ballet, of the dance, is felt, making Vicky’s later inner-conflict all the more comprehensible. If life cannot measure up to that exhilarating experience, how can one give it up? And yet, if that means abandoning true happiness, is it worth it? The violent clash between these desires drive the film, and in one magnificent show-within-a-film, it is both outlined and made irresistible. 

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

Exquisitely framed and shot in dazzling color, with the shoes themselves standing out vividly in landscapes of blues and greys, it features fabulously innovative set design and montage work. The dance sequences are brilliantly performed and well worth watching the film for in their own right, but non-fans will still find them easily accessible — they enhance, rather than delay, the larger drama. Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Christian Blauvelt, Slant Magazine

It’s hard to overstate what a breakthrough the actual “Ballet of the Red Shoes” scene is in this film. After years of musical numbers—usually involving Fred Astaire—that consisted of little more than statically pointing the camera at a dancer in long shot, and subtly reframing only when necessary, Powell and Pressburger completely subjectivize dance in their titular ballet. They not only open up the space of the stage, allowing for Shearer to flit and prance her way beyond the parameters of the proscenium, but cut in to close-ups (as of her feet when she first magically jumps into her crimson shoes) and point-of-view shots from Shearer’s perspective. Though Victoria’s real-life struggle between romantic love and artistic expression is more earthbound, it’s no less heartbreaking. A tragedy, not so much of circumstances, but of her own dual nature, Victoria becomes a symbol for so much of modern womanhood, caught as she is between her dreams and passions. Read more.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

This is the compelling parable of the destructive demands made by art upon the artist, and upon performing artists expected to sublimate their emotions into a quasi-sexual submission to their director – a parable that seems to change into a portrait of psychotic disorder or actual demonic possession. It is also, incidentally, a portrait of an age in which the marriage contract instantly nullified a woman’s professional identity. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

The film is voluptuous in its beauty and passionate in its storytelling. You don’t watch it, you bathe in it. Yes, the ending is a shocker, but you see it coming and there’s no way around it; the movie tells us a fairy tale and then repeats it as real life. It’s the Hans Christian Andersen fable about a young girl who puts on a pair of red slippers that will not allow her to stop dancing; she must dance and dance, in a grotesque mockery of happiness, until she is dead. This is a dire subject for a ballet, you will agree; the movie surrounds it with the hard-boiled business of running a ballet company. Read more.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out London

Until the time comes to cut loose, at which point Powell unleashes the most eye-popping visual extravaganza imaginable. Blending impressionist art and expressionist film, blurring the barriers between theatre and cinema, body and camera, reality and dream, drawing equally on the avant-garde and the classical, the centerpiece ballet is a sequence of sheer, reckless transcendence. It’s here that “The Red Shoes” becomes more than the sum of its hoary old parts, taking flight as the crowning glory of our national cinema. Read more.

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