Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger remain two of the most consummate and creative filmmakers to have graced the medium. Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp are often hailed some of the best films of all time. Their 1947 ballet film The Red Shoes is often regarded as the best of their Post-WWII period of intense creativity. This fable about the ballerina Vicky, her lover Julian, and the cruel artist Lermentov did for me what all great films do; my surroundings dropped away and the barrier between me and the film was erased; I felt in the middle of the magic.
The Red Shoes is a film that revels in artifice. There is a scene early in the film in which Vicky and Julian meet on a balcony at night. No effort is made to hide the fact that the ocean behind them is a matte painting or the balcony a set, but no effort is made to force this onto the viewer either. A train speeds through, shown only by the smoke that rises from the balcony. Then, cut, a brief shot of a paper floating through the cool night air, almost as if it were dancing. The Archers delighted in heightening reality like this, making the mundane memorable and magical. Even the backstage scenes showing an ordinary day feel otherworldly.
Of course there are the spectacular set pieces as well, how could one ignore the fifteen minute ballet sequence at the center of the film? It is a piece of filmmaking that needs to be seen to be appreciated. The line between stage and cinema, cinema and viewer that I mentioned earlier drops away and the viewer is swept up into the enchantment and poetry of the film. Moira Shearer and her dancing are works of art unto themselves.
There is an underbelly to this magic in the form of Boris Lermentov, a larger than life figure. He lives and breathes his art, but at the sacrifice of enjoying his life. When he fires his star dancer for marrying, his friend and colleague tells him he can’t destroy human nature; Lermentov replies saying, “True, but you can ignore it.” There is a depth to Lermentov’s character that is only heightened by Anton Wallbrook’s performance. He plays Lermentov as cold, but not inhuman. Instead of being a heartless villain, Lermentov is a sympathetic albeit flawed character.
The Red Shoes is an essential work, and one of the great classic films. It is fraught with passion, tension, and fantasy, but above all it is a work that never ages; its depiction of the creative process and the life of an artist remains as powerful now as it was in 1947.