The Red Shoes (Criterion)
There’s a real charge to the cinema of Michael Powell, a joy in the play of expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up his films with energy, color, and magic—the magic of love and life and art. That invention and play with cinematic technique sounds like another British director with great directorial control and imagination, Alfred Hitchcock, yet they couldn’t be more different. The unbridled imagination of Powell’s direction (especially in partnership with his creative partner, Emeric Pressberger, who Powell shared director credit with even though his contributions are largely in the writing and producing arenas) feels like an impish schoolboy running wild through the traditions of British cinema, finding ways to give us the subjective experience of his characters, letting the emotions overflow in explosions of cinematic excitement. (It’s no wonder that Scorsese responded to Powell so powerfully; at his best, Scorsese creates the same kind of experience with his own style.)
Yet where Hitchcock is celebrated by people who couldn’t tell you the name of even one of his films, Powell remains a cult director beloved by cineastes but known to the world at large mostly for the lush, lavishly realized The Red Shoes. To girls of a certain age and a predisposition to the romance and beauty of ballet, this film is a touchstone that remains an impassioned favorite long after their invitation to the dance is over. For me, it’s a film of dark fantasy, romantic passion and an infectious love of dance, music and cinema. In 2009, The Red Shoes was restored from scratch and the print premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is what Criterion used for their new, freshly remastered edition, on DVD and making its debut on Blu-ray.
I hadn’t seen The Red Shoes in over 15 years when I sat down with the new Criterion Blu-ray. I remembered it as the story of dedicated young ballerina Vicky (Moira Shearer), who is elevated to world renown after taking her first lead in the titular ballet, only to become torn between to men: the demanding ballet mentor Lermentov (Anton Walbrook), who accepts nothing less than total commitment to the company, and the ambitious and frankly arrogant young composer Julian (Marius Goring), which whom she falls in love. And while that’s not incorrect, I became aware of how equally weighted all three stories, and all three characters, are in the film: each an artist striving to create their best work. I was even more surprised to realize that, while Vicky and Julian work in the same company from early on, they don’t actually meet until 50 minutes into the film, in the very scene in Monte Carlo where they are both promoted by Lermontov: he to composing the new ballet score “The Red Shoes” from top to bottom, she to lead dancer.
The opening is pure Powell: students charging the balcony of the ballet hall to get the best seats with unselfconscious rambunctiousness. The jocular talk and horseplay soon turns serious, though not out of respect for the ballet. The students, and Julian (Marius Goring) in particular, are there for the music, and Julian is distressed, hurt and most of all disappointed to realize that his beloved professor stole his work. The playfulness gives way to seriousness, and with it the film leaves the easygoing world of students for the demanding world of professionals.
The grand ballets are lovingly designed and presented with great cinematic invention, filmed like a narrative through choreography and gesture and color and texture, with all the integrity of a great movie musical sequence. Yet there is as much loving detail to the small, provincial stages (where a mounted fan provides what little circulation and records on victrolas provide the music) and run-down rehearsal rooms where the hard work is done in advance of the spotlight. It is this drama on the way up to stardom, and behind the curtain in preparation for a production, that engages the viewer: the physical and creative effort put in to creating a ballet, to making art. Powell makes a point of showing just how many people, working at the top of their game, it takes to create the pieces that must be brought together by producer Lermontov. While they necessarily focus on their work almost to the exclusion of every other aspect of the whole, often refusing to compromise their vision for the good of the whole, and it takes Lermontov to negotiate the union and bring it all together. Like a conductor. Or a film director.
[Minor spoiler alert] Lermontov is a creator, an artist, a businessman, a mentor, a taskmaster and something of a dictator. He’s also, for all his circle of collaborators, alone, a man who seems unable to love and instead possesses through his direction. He demands total obedience and Vicky gives him that through her work but not her private life. “You can’t have it both ways,” Lermontov says early in the film, when he learns that his lead female dancer, Boronskaja, is getting married, and he turns his back on her with a coldness that chills the screen. But with Vicky he seems to have found a kindred soul, someone who dances because she cannot not dance. That he discovers her romance with Julian the very night he has attempted to break down the wall of professionalism with a private, intimate dinner, perhaps his first attempt at romance himself, is almost too much: the betrayal he feels is magnified by feelings he cannot even admit to himself. His response is vindictive: He drives Julian out of the company. But if he feels rejected or jilted like a lover, he loves Vicky and respects her art too much to ever stop her from dancing. For Vicky, Lermontov will break his commandments and take her back on her terms. It’s Julian who forces her to choose, and it’s his ultimatum that leads to the final tragedy. [End spoiler alert]
The appreciation for the work of the company director, the producer, impresario and namesake Lermontov, makes this a beautiful companion piece to Renoir’s French Cancan, another story of the impresario as artist. And the comparison to Lermontov as film director becomes more interesting when you look at Powell’s own history with female stars, often falling in love (and having affairs) with them and expressing his adoration through the cinema, building them up into the beautiful stars of his films.
While the world sees the film as Vicky’s tragedy, I think Powell sees Lermontov as the tragic figure, a man who has all his rejected human love for love of art, and dedicated his life to creating art. Though often shown imperious and cold in his relations, Anton Walbrook reveals a vulnerability in his eyes and a heartbreak upon his face. Julian offers something Lermontov cannot, or at least has not: a physical affection. But apart from a few scenes of courtship rituals, we’re shown little deep affection between the two, and none of the adoration in Julian’s eyes that Lermontov exhibits. That Lermontov shows his love by making her a greater artist—the one thing that Julian cannot or will not do—is, in the terms of the film, the greatest proof of all.
Nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Motion Picture Story, a category that no longer exists) and it won two, for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Hard to believe that Jack Cardiff did not get a nomination for his magnificent cinematography.
For the 2009 restoration by UCLA and The Film Foundation, supervised by Robert Gitt, the engineers returned to the original (but deteriorated) three-strip Technicolor negatives and rebuilt the film from scratch with the help of archival prints and other materials for reference. Gitt describes the process in a short essay in the accompanying booklet, and Scorsese narrates a new four-minute featurette illustrating the damage to the original elements and comparing it to digital restoration. The exactness of the restoration and the details of the Blu-ray shows up the weaknesses of the optical effects in one sequence of the ballet, but the rest of the spectacle is so absorbing you barely notice the ambition of the special effects, only the resulting magic of the imagery. The color is not to be believed. In the right creative hands, three-strip Technicolor could offer a magical lushness that was like a dream of reality, the kind of color that the cinema hasn’t seen in decades, and this is one of the great showcases.
Along with the restored The Red Shoes comes another great Technicolor showcase from Powell and Pressberger and Jack Cardiff, this one of a more adult nature. Black Narcisuss (1947) is a sweltering chamber drama of five Protestant missionary nuns whose resolve, chastity, and faith come under assault in an isolated, primitive Himalayan retreat, cut off from the anchors of their familiar world and left to struggle against their own uncertainties and worldly desires fanned by the heat and the exoticism of their place. Deborah Kerr’s defiant leadership is undermined by the earthy sensuality of the people and the place, and by the visits by the cynical but supportive British agent David Farrar. Jack Cardiff won an Oscar for his vibrant, rich work: a fantastic India of the mind created in Britain’s Pinewood Studios and a color saturated Technicolor hot-house atmosphere for Powell’s building hysteria. New to this release is a video introduction and a video interview by Bertrand Tavernier and the 25-minute documentary “Profile of Black Narcissus” from 2000, plus it includes the supplements from the Criterion’s earlier DVD and laserdisc release. Martin Scorsese kicks off the commentary track with a loving analysis of the color, images, and lush style of Powell’s direction, while the aging director Michael Powell offers halting remembrances (“This is Michael Powell speaking and dreaming about Black Narcissus”) of making the film with a slow, slurring speech . Scorsese’s energy and passion helps move the track along. Also includes Painting with Light, a documentary featurette focusing on cinematographer Cardiff and his work on the film.