Friday, March 19, 2010

Chromatic March: The Red Shoes (1948) analysis

The Red Shoes: a dark, classical, and enigmatic 1948 movie about a bunch of different stuff (as all good movies are), but mostly ballet. It's an adapted fairy tale, but it feels more like the balanced, sweeping composition that ballet and stagecraft imply. The core story is about a rising ballet star who is recruited by a great director for his company. She meets another talented recruit, the director's new composer, and in the midst of growing recognition, they fall in love. The director, a ruthless devotee of his art, resents and opposes the happiness they've found together, which conflicts with his puritan ideas about the purity of an artist's lifestyle. His resentment brings about a heartbreaking conflict between human love and devotion to an artistic pursuit. The acting is brilliant, the experimentation is heartfelt and effective, and judged as a traditional narrative piece, it stands with the best films I've seen.

The three leads in The Red Shoes play to a perfect pitch, each exhibiting that charisma and alluring distinctiveness that old Hollywood was so good at creating. Victoria Page, the rising ballerina, is radiant and captivating... before being chosen for the part, she was indeed an accomplished ballerina, and so she reinforces the film's commitment to the art it showcases. Julian Craster is a young idealist swept up in the early stages of success, and whether he's testing out a new composition at the piano or professing his love for Victoria, he follows each of his passions with fetching sincerity. However, it's Boris Lermontov, the daunting director of the company, who provides the core character of the film. He is a manipulative totalitarian, obsessed with success and purity in his art, but his presence is also one of incredible charisma. He is ruthless, but never quite evil, because in his private moments, we can see that he is sincere about his love for ballet, and when circumstances conflict with this ambition, it visibly tortures him. Ebert is correct when he identifies Lermontov as a centerpiece of the film's mysteries:
The motives of the ballerina and her lover are transparent. But the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that.
In Lermontov, actor Anton Walbrook provides directors Powell and Pressburger with an unfathomable antagonist.

The Red Shoes, like many more recent (more stylized) films, employs the device of using red objects (the shoes especially) to create small focal points of attention. However, it's far from a one-note production. In fact, the colors in The Red Shoes provide the starting point for engaging with the deeper themes and subtexts of the film. It's a film about ballet and high society, a romance based on a fairy tale, but this belies the darkness and disquiet that lurks below its aesthetic surface. In The Red Shoes, those festive, high-spirited scenes on the stage and in the theater are just a veneer over a movie full of resentment, frustration, and uncertainty.

Likewise, those well-lit interior scenes, whose warm yellow plaster is offset by the colorful stage objects scattered about... those scenes are common, but they aren't the scenes that really set the film's tone. The scenes that really establish the tone are the ones in unlit hallways and dark bedrooms, private spaces lit by candlelight... the shadows cast over a dimly-lit stage, a single spotlight in a dark chamber in the depths of consciousness. It's rare that you see this many colors of darkness, sometimes all in the same scene: a yellow wall in the glow of a candle flame, a gradient from blue to gray or pale red to dark green. In some movies (Suspiria, for instance... I love using this movie as a comparison) the darkness is invaded by color from outside. However, it's rare to see an effect like the one in The Red Shoes, where the colors seem to be emanating from the darkness itself, filling empty spaces and inhabiting volumes that should be completely invisible.

Of course, blues and greens aren't the only colors. The Red Shoes would get a bit bland if it was just red shoes and dark hues... this miasmic shadow is broken up by the occasional beautifully-lit practice stage or sunlit parlor. These gilded scenes are astoundingly romantic and reassuring, but they're also artificial and transient, like a spotlight encroaching just for a moment on the infinite shadow of an empty stage. They ultimately serve to remind us of their own flattering, gilded impermanence. The darkness is where all the substance of the film resides, alluring and foreboding and unpredictable.

Director Michael Powell, working here with frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger, ventured further into these dark spaces with later characters, like the infamous Mark from Peeping Tom. Peeping Tom was Powell's infamous failure, a complex and intelligent horror movie that was too controversial for the audience at the time. In it, Powell further pursued his theme of dark spaces and landscapes of the mind, showcasing the rainy streets of London and the unlit apartment of its disturbed central character. He also had a scene in a theater, with Mark victimizing a flirtatious actress, and the sinister sets and stages of The Red Shoes seem to anticipate this scene, in a way. In these two films, arguably Powell's best work, he explores theme of theater as a psychological stage, a place where we're able to play out our deviant fantasies, put them on display, and ultimately bear witness to them ourselves.

This film is a reconstruction of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same title, a story that then plays a prominent part within the film itself. Interestingly, some of the anxiety in The Red Shoes may come from Hans Christan Andersen himself. According to some notable news stories and reviews1, Andersen was a failed dancer, and feet and shoes figure prominently into some of his stories as aversive fetishes. The imprint of his failures, his fears, and his personality upon his story, then upon the ballet based on that story, and then upon this film, derived from that source material, would be a great topic for some obtuse postmodern theory.

The Red Shoes comes highly recommended, like so many of my Chromatic March films; if you've seen it, let me know what you thought of it, and if you haven't, I highly recommend it.

Palette: Portentous


[1] This "tribute" piece is obnoxiously patronizing and backhanded, by the way. After you read it, please read The Self-Styled Siren's response to it, which I definitely relate to.

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