Simplicity Can Only Be Achieved By Great Agony Of Body And Spirit: The Red Shoes (1948)

A viewing of The Red Shoes has been a long time in the making, it was probably the biggest gap in my film viewing catalogue and was always a point of shame when I would have to admit to having never seen it when talking with fellow cinephile.  Finally, on Friday I had yet another individual with excellent taste in film mention it to me and I decided then and there that I would go home and watch it without hesitation.  Going into it I expected nothing short of perfection and I can say with every degree of certainty that the film still overwhelmed me with its magic, its madness and its sheer cinematic mastery.  The Red Shoes, has made a very welcomed come back thanks to the diligent work of some film preservationists at UCLA, the tireless efforts of the gang over at Criterion and a surprise advocation for the film coming from Martin Scorsese whose filmmaking oeuvre certainly does not reflect this ballet heavy, musical influenced film from the masters of Technicolor Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  There is not a moment within The Red Shoes that is not entirely entrenched within the cinematic spectacle, much like Singin' In The Rain the film exists as a work of grandiosity so artistic that to profess to disliking it would essentially be admitting that you hate living.  As pretentious as that may sound, The Red Shoes seriously is an impeccable film and aside from a few moments of wry British humor there is nothing about this film not to completely love, in fact, it manages to the cross the seemingly divergent lines of classicist filmmaking styles and highly expressionistic experimental filmmaking with such fervor that it has the feeling of being a colorful rendition of an early Busby Berkeley dance number.  Furthermore, like the aforementioned Singin' In The Rain you can easily go into this film assuming you know the plot to the film, yet it will very much unfold in front of you with such expertise and layers that when the close finally does come in its climactic intensity you will realize that you may well have stopped breathing for a few minutes.  It is still baffling that this highly realized film is essentially just an adaptation of a children's fairy tale, all be it a dark one.

The Red Shoes begins with a crew of students rushing an auditorium to witness the performance of an acclaimed ballet piece from Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) whose prestige has led to all group regardless of class to view his work, including Julian Craster (Marius Goring) an aspiring conductor who is immediately baffled to realize that his own pieces are being lifted for the performance.  Also in attendance is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) an aspiring dancer whose ties to high places afford her an opportunity to meet the elusive Lermontov post performance, using her charm to assure a chance to audition.  Craster via letter confronts Lermontov about his theft, only to regret his decision, in the process meeting Lermontov who hires him on the spot.  Both Craster and Page become witness to the insanity and deception latent within the world of ballet performance, and begin to fathom how much power Lermontov truly wields.  Each, nonetheless, takes their turn in making an identity for themselves, Page by dancing wildly at a minor performance for the company, where as Craster jumps at the opportunity to rewrite a ballet adaptation of The Red Shoes, which he does brilliantly leading to Lermontov choosing it as the company's next pieces.  It is within this performance of The Red Shoes that harmony comes together beautifully as Craster and Page unleash a chemistry undeniable in a ballet performance that literally transcends the space and time of the theater.  The show of course receives rave reviews and the names of Page and Craster become well known, yet they fall for one another, much to the disapproval of Lermontov who sees it as a risk to his newly found cash cow.  He demands that they split leading to a deep depression in the two and the subsequent falling apart of the company.  Lermontov, nonetheless, manages to convince Page to return to the performance, which leads to a falling out between her and Craster who leaves dejected.  Realizing her mistake Page attempts to return to Craster, only to encounter her demise in what is easily one of cinema's most harrowing moments.  Of course, The Red Shoes is danced on, although the lack of Page is a very real thing when the troupe decides to perform without the presence of their leading lady, or any person in her place.

I once attended a conference where I saw a presentation comparing The Red Shoes to the then recently released Black Swan.  A majority of the discussion grounded the comparison in a use of Jacques Lacan's mirror theory which at the time was something I was unfamiliar with making for a rather difficult to understand talk, although I certainly think, upon seeing The Red Shoes that something is to be said about the notion of identity, sanity and the affects of performance demands on the individual.  Both films feature female performers whose quest for perfection and acknowledgement lead them to spiral into a degree of madness, although in Aronofsky's film the madness is tied to sexual inexperience and clear mental distress.  In the case of The Red Shoes it is a desire for success and a clear passion for the art of ballet, which by all accounts is probably the most labor intensive art one could choose.  Furthermore, where as Black Swan is about a singular individual, The Red Shoes focuses on a group of peoples' experiences, viewers have just come to associate the film with Moria Shearer, because it is her image the dominates the most magical and cinematic portion of the film.  The Red Shoes is much more a film about navigating the world of art, which has inherent ties to prestige and bourgeois power moves.  We see this in Page's complete disconnect from the fact that she is able to attend and leave practice in a chauffeured car, where as her fellow dancers must walk everywhere.  In sharp contrast is Craster whose identity as a student means he has little wealth or power to navigate, making his being robbed of his musical identity the exact thing to push him into impassioned action, which has relative success, up until the films closing moments of course.  Where The Red Shoes and Black Swan seem to come back together is in the closing moments of both main female characters, each arguably perform their last leap of perfection with dire results, but both also raise the question as to where one can go but down after achieving perfection.

Key Scene:  This is a no brainer, the entire dance sequence in the middle of the film could play on repeat on televisions and I know I would watch it countless times.

The Criterion bluray really is something to be amazed by and well worth owning.

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