To paraphrase Macbeth, the cinema hath bubbles—a select few works of art so rare in their beauty, delicacy, and refinement that you fear they will vanish in front of your eyes before your retinas have fully gorged themselves on the visual splendor before you. The Red Shoes is one such film. And never is it more needed than right now, as the perfect color-splashed antidote to this summer’s latest tedious blockbuster, the flat, color-blind, monochromatic doldrums of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. (Since when exactly did color go out of style, to be replaced in franchise movies of the Jason Bourne and Batman varieties with a metallic palette of grey, black, and beige? Around the same time that someone, either Paul Greengrass or Nolan, decided summer movies could no longer be fun, right?) To look at The Red Shoes today is to marvel at the full potential of the three-strip Technicolor process. In the hands of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tiny wisp of a story pops with reds, blues, and greens more vivid than life itself. Though their story is a tragedy and far from any conventional conception of escapism, Powell and Pressburger nonetheless succeeded in creating a film with such sensual power, that it should be Exhibit A when trying to define what Susan Sontag meant as the “erotics of art.”
Of course, Sontag was calling for a new style of rhapsodic criticism when she invoked that now famous phrase, and in its own way, that’s what The Red Shoes provides. A study of what draws inspired youths to the arts (is it just the potential for expression, or is it also the possibility of recognition and adulation?), The Red Shoes, like Powell and Pressburger’s similar A Canterbury Tale, follows a lyrical rather than linear plot structure. The emphasis is quite rightly placed on the development of character, and so we see young Julian Craster (Marius Goring), aspiring composer and a victim of plagiarism at the hands of his beloved professor, get his first break composing for a distinguished ballet company and how he matures, deepens, and develops his art. Of course, there’s also Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who’s a society girl at first dismissed by ballet impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), but who shares his passion for art and life. When he asks her why she wants to dance, she replies, “Why do you want to live?” Powell and Pressburger are careful to show us the collaborative nature of ballet—its behind-the-scenes technicians and craftsmen who, though unsung, deserve as much credit as the names on the marquee—and it’s not hard to imagine that this is their democratic statement on cinema as well.
The choice between living life and contributing art (more the observation of life) becomes Victoria’s pivotal fault line, as she falls in love with Julian against Lermontov’s wishes. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is a pedagogical warning to children about vanity in its telling of a young woman who skips out of church and forgets to tend to her sickly mother, instead putting on a pair of red shoes to dance at a party. The red shoes, bewitched, have a life of their own and compel her to dance forever without stopping, until she manages to have an executioner chop off her feet. Andersen’s stories mix sexuality and spirituality in a way that can unsettle contemporary audiences (remember those who thought that Disney’s The Little Mermaid was too sexual!), but Powell and Pressburger take away the more gruesome elements of Andersen’s original tale and, like its spiritual cousin Moulin Rouge!, The Red Shoes becomes a mise en abyme, with the true drama occurring backstage yet reflecting the themes of the show Lermontov’s ballet company is mounting.
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.
I have to confess, somewhat ashamedly, that I initially regretted not being able to review Black Narcissus instead. I had seen The Red Shoes before and absurdly classified it as one of Powell and Pressburger’s more “conventional” films; it didn’t have the daring episodic structure of A Canterbury Tale, the sexual hysteria of Black Narcissus, the dream-like ambiguity of A Matter of Life and Death, the rhapsodic romanticism of I Know Where I’m Going! My initial opinion of this great masterpiece of modern art must surely have been, to quote Susan Sontag again, “the revenge of [my] intellect upon art.” Like John Ford, Walt Disney, and Steven Spielberg, Powell and Pressburger understood that artistry and mainstream popularity need not be mutually exclusive. Rather, within the conventions I had formerly dismissed, that of the backstage romance, the neophyte composer hoping to “make it,” the rising star torn between conflicting desires, they, like the great classical artists, found their most sublime form of expression.
The 2009 restoration undertaken by the Film Foundation and supervised by the UCLA Film and Television Archive completely transforms the experience of The Red Shoes. The original three-strip negatives used in the Technicolor process had decayed at varying rates, leading to a slight blur and dulling of the colors in previous prints. That's been completely solved now. Every frame preserves cinematographer Jack Cardiff's original depth of field without any blurring. There's not a spot of dirt or grain to be found anywhere. Watching this new digital transfer of the Film Foundation's restored print is to see The Red Shoes for the first time, even if you've seen it before. The original mono soundtrack is every bit as impressive—and immersive.
Martin Scorsese, Archers obsessive that he is, introduces the film with a summary of the Film Foundation's restoration project, and includes a gallery of The Red Shoes memorabilia he's collected over the years. His longtime collaborator and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (the widow of Michael Powell) also contributes an interview about the influence of The Red Shoes on her life and on Scorsese's. She mentions that Marty paid tribute to the film's great shot of Moira Shearer's feet as she runs down a staircase in Shutter Island with a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio's feet as he runs up a staircase. Marty's also on hand for the audio commentary featuring British film historian Ian Christie (author of an essential BFI monograph on Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death) and interviews with Marius Goring, Shearer, and an extremely aged Jack Cardiff, who passed away last year at the age of 94. Less interesting is "Profile of The Red Shoes," a very-standard making-of documentary. Best of all, a highly stylized painted storyboard representation of "The Ballet of the Red Shoes" with Jeremy Irons reading Hans Christian Andersen's original story on the soundtrack. He also reads excerpts from Powell and Pressburger's 1978 novelization of the film.
Coming out when it's most desperately needed during this summer of colorless blockbusters, Criterion's release of The Red Shoes is the stuff fairy-tales are made of.