Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Red Shoes" (1948)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

The Film Experience's "Year of the Month" for June is 1948, and there is perhaps no better film to examine from that year than The Archers' (the name directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell selected for their collaborations) most well-known film, The Red Shoes. Though it was hardly the first film to exploit the beautiful rigor of ballet, it is certainly one of the seminal films of a tiny subgenre I like to call "Ballerinas Be Crazy."

The film concerns Victoria "Vicky" Page (Moira Shearer), an aspiring dancer who is given the opportunity to audition for renowned impresario Boris Lermontov's (Anton Walbrook) ballet company. When the prima ballerina of the company leaves, Lermontov allows Vicky to take the spotlight, and commissions young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) to rewrite the score for a new ballet entitled "The Red Shoes." As the show becomes increasingly successful, a love triangle emerges between the three, with Vicky trying to balance her love for Julian with her need to dance and question Lermontov's advances.

The film arrived during one of the peak periods of British cinema; post-war Britain was struggling to reclaim its identity, and the nation's cinema was crucial toward the recovery of that identity. Films like The Red Shoes helped re-establish Britain on the international scene, in the process transforming Powell and Pressburger into internationally-celebrated figures. The same can be said of Jack Cardiff, the film's cinematographer, whose use of Technicolor in this film has been widely acclaimed as one of the best uses of the technique ever committed to film. Every frame seems meticulously obsessed over, getting the colors just right so that they vibrantly pop from the screen.

Obsession is the film's major theme, particularly how it can destroy lives. And the film approaches this theme in some rather surprising ways.

More after the jump.

The most obvious subtext of obsession is actually text: the ballet-within-the-film. The story, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is about a young girl who puts on a magical pair of red shoes, causing her to dance uncontrollably for as long as she wears them. In Andersen's tale, the girl does not stop dancing until a woodsman hacks her feet off with an axe. In the ballet, the girl's fate is less gruesome, but nonetheless the same, as the girl dies when the shoes are removed from her feet. The shoes are possessed, thanks to the work of the demonic shopkeeper, but as a result so is the dancer.

Powell and Pressburger impressively stage the ballet in a remarkable 15-minute sequence that serves as the film's centerpiece. As staged, it's a brilliant use of Technicolor, a true show-stopping sequence that nearly 70 years later is still a marvel to behold. Just feast your eyes on these gorgeous frames:

But the ballet itself isn't the only vessel for obsession. Vicky, too, is a woman possessed, her love of dancing consuming her in a way her passion for Julian can never amount to. It's interesting to note that Vicky's conundrum isn't whether she should romantically be with Julian or Lermontov, even though the latter does carry such feelings for her. Instead, she's being asked to choose between romantic love and creative fulfillment; does she leave the ballet to be with the man she loves, or does she leave him to follow her dreams as a renowned dancer?

It's a remarkable decision for her to make, as most films of the time would have had her choosing between the two men romantically. But like the character she plays in the ballet, Vicky's obsession with dance would ultimately be her downfall as well. Though her marriage to Julian promises a lifetime of happiness, she cannot resist the allure of Lermontov's company and the possibility of reviving the role that made her famous. And in the end it costs her her life, the red shoes once more claiming a victim through dance.

But Vicky isn't the only one harboring an obsession. Lermontov, too, is obsessed with ballet, almost as much as he is obsessed with Vicky. He's willing to do whatever it takes to secure Vicky's place within the company, including holding the exclusive rights to stage "The Red Shoes" and tracking Vicky down to bring her back to the company. Like Salieri in Amadeus and Dallas in Magic Mike, Lermontov is a Svengali-like figure who lures a young protege into his orbit, only to lead them to their destruction in the pursuit of their art. He's responsible for Vicky's untimely fate, a truth that only seems to register with him after it is too late.

*Best Shot*

Which brings me to my choice for "best shot." It's not one of the film's most colorful or tantalizing frames, but it effectively communicates Lermontov's obsession and the film's destructive theme. The way he caresses the statue of a disembodied foot, in a state of everlasting dance no less, is just disturbing enough to cast him as a dangerous man. He's playing the part of siren, guiding Vicky to the reefs of ruin with his promises of artistry, fame, and passion. What makes him so convincing, though, is that he believes it himself. Their inabilities to step back from their obsessions is ultimately what does them both in.

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