Artists from myriad genres and time periods have gotten considerable mileage out of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 fairy tale “The Red Shoes.” There’s the 1993 pop album from Kate Bush, the 2005 Korean horror film and, most notably, the 1948 British film of the same name, written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which is playing this weekend at 5th Avenue Cinema.
Andersen’s tale is simple enough to allow for numerous interpretations and compelling enough to remain timeless. The stories all differ, but the gist is the same: A young woman receives a pair of red shoes and grows obsessively attached to them. She literally cannot stop dancing.
Here the stories differ a bit: Andersen’s tale is diabolically dark, in that terrifying way that most 19th century fairy tales turn out to be. Karen, who is possessed by the red shoes, hates the effect the shoes’ have on her so much that she has an executioner chop off her feet at the ankles. Unfortunately, the shoes continue to dance and, now detached from her body, taunt her by blocking her entrance to church, causing her to miss her mother’s funeral. It’s all pretty gruesome and messed up.
In Powell and Pressburger’s iteration, the tale is rather less ghastly. Our setting is the posh, upper-crust world of British ballet in the 1940s. We meet Victoria Page (the stunning Moira Shearer), an up-and-coming dancer, at a ballet after-party where she first meets Boris Lermontov (Anton Wallbrook), the manager and director of a ballet company.
“Why do you want to dance?” Lermontov asks Vicky over champagne cocktails. “Why do you want to live?” she replies without the trace of a smile. Lermontov immediately recognizes the young dancer’s passion. (And, it should be said, her beauty.) It’s striking to watch Shearer, a robust and radiant woman in total control of her body, especially after a trailer for the latest big-budget action flick starring an emaciated, empty-eyed leading lady.
The ballet impresario keeps an eye on Page, ultimately finding a role for her in the Ballet Lermontov troupe after seeing her in a production of “Swan Lake.” Soon after, the troupe’s prima ballerina (Ludmilla Tcherina) must leave, having recently fallen in love and gotten married, which sets up the love vs. career theme that supplies the tension of the film.
Vicky’s love interest, the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), is also enjoying a meteoric rise through Ballet Lermontov. After a brief stint as orchestra coach, Lermontov sees Craster’s potential and commissions the composer to write the score to a ballet—”The Red Shoes,” based on the Andersen fairy tale and starring, you guessed it, Vicky Page.
Page and Craster’s collaboration draws rapturous applause in Paris, and the filmmakers fill a 15-minute chunk of the second act with the ballet itself. The prospect of 15 minutes of uninterrupted ballet may turn off some viewers (I was skeptical), but Powell and Pressburger pull it off. The filmmakers employed real ballet dancers, many from the Royal Ballet Company, and the result is an entrancing display that gets downright trippy. At one point, it felt more like a Coen brothers-style acid trip montage than a British ballet film.
There are numerous facets of “The Red Shoes” that feel refreshingly modern. There is a great deal of deft, understated acting—not the overblown theatrical style of many older films—and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is lush and textured. The film’s most famous champion, Martin Scorsese, first saw the film—which is his favorite—in 1950 and helped restore its fading Technicolor in 2009.
Unfortunately for Vicky and Julian, their burgeoning love comes at a price. Lermontov won’t countenance any distractions for his prima ballerina and forces his star to choose between her relationship and her ballet career, a decision made especially difficult because Vicky is still fully in the throes of the red shoes’ power.
Ultimately, the film hinges on the perennially unfair decision faced by working women the world over: Vicky must either pursue her career or, as the increasingly villainous Lermontov puts it, go “be a faithful housewife.” This dilemma transcends the film’s time and place and is felt as acutely in 2012 as when it was first released. Even in richly-painted Technicolor and tacky B-role footage, Vicky’s choice carries weight with the viewer. “Your life is dancing,” Lermontov tells her.
And even 60-odd years later, watching a downloaded copy on a laptop plugged into an HDTV flat-screen, “The Red Shoes” is as compelling as ever.
The Portland Vanguard,