Easily one of the most sumptuously sensuous films ever made, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s groundbreaking Red Shoes hasn’t lost its ability to both seduce and startle viewers more than sixty years after its cinematic debut in 1948.
And while the tragedy of the fairy tale inspired dual storyline was inevitable from a narrative standpoint, perhaps the most shocking aspect of Shoes wasn’t the fact that one of our main characters dies in an abrupt final sequence but rather for what such a doomed fate meant for those watching the picture.
Namely, instead of suggesting that we should only be prepared to die simply to protect our freedom, home, family and country, The Red Shoes seemed to argue that now that the second world war had ended, for artists, there was no cause more important to put our lives on the line than art.
“Why do you want to live?” young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) asks Boris Lermontov, the head of a ballet company (Anton Walbrook) before he replies that he must. Quickly, the woman startles him by sharing that his answer is the exact same reason she gives upon being asked why she wants to dance.
Art and life are interchangeable to a passionate performer, we discover in this absorbing drama that has more in common with serious opera than it does with other works traditionally categorized alongside it in the musical genre.
And although the calculating methods employed by the egomaniacal Lermontov easily make him the film’s emotional villain, in order to become a prima ballerina, we simultaneously realize that Victoria Page wouldn’t have it any other way. Page’s rise to fame as a principal dancer in Ballet Lermontov are mirrored by the mutual climb to musical heights achieved by talented composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), both of whom work alongside Lermontov.
Traveling with Lermontov throughout Europe, the two British talents prove their mettle in the company’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous tale The Red Shoes, which chronicles the downfall of a dancer who’s unable to stop performing until her body gives out, thereby foreshadowing the film’s eventual heartbreak.
Given the chance at stardom after Lermontov fires his former headliner when she gets married which goes against his belief that one can never be a great dancer if one “relies upon the doubtful comfort of human love,” Page’s ambition to let Lermontov mold her into “one of the greatest dancers the world has ever known” is threatened when unexpectedly, she begins to fall in love with Craster.
Challenged by the film’s separately classified desires to live life versus practicing art as Powell and Pressburger’s stance seems to coincide with the attitudes expressed by Lermontov including the ultimate revelation that it’s impossible “to have it all,” the characters reach their breaking point in this recently restored cinematic classic.
Lovingly remastered to high definition and transferred to crisp Criterion Collection Blu-ray complete with demonstrations by one of the film’s most ardent enthusiasts, Martin Scorsese as well as an interview with Scorsese’s longtime editor/collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker who is Michael Powell’s widow, The Red Shoes has been impressively infused with an overall filmic look despite the fact that the new master was created 100% digitally.
Originally photographed in the magenta, green and blue three strip color process, restorers of this award-winning print have removed decades of mold build-up and debris to sharpen blurry images and adjust the strained color to ensure that the film dazzles with dance-fueled grandeur during the movie’s iconic roughly twenty minute ballet sequence, which inspired Gene Kelly to such an extent that he had collaborators watch the work repeatedly prior to shooting An American in Paris.
Retaining the 1948 1.33:1 vintage square shaped aspect ratio, Criterion fills the disc with commentary by historian Ian Christie in tandem with cast and crew interviews, Jeremy Irons audio recordings as he performs Andersen’s fairy tale and excerpts from the filmmakers’ novelization, a documentary and more. All in all, it’s an exquisite presentation of the movie that’s sure to delight its most passionate fans as well as fascinate those who are just becoming acquainted with the work.
Yet despite its existence as luscious poetry in motion, The Red Shoes isn’t a perfect film and while of course the movie’s flaws don’t ruin the film overall, nonetheless, since it is one of those pictures so impossibly close to perfection, they do stand out. In addition to the picture’s oft-discussed glaring inconsistency on display in the film’s most notorious shot of a character’s lifeless body which hearkens to the title, there are a few structural problems that do hinder the overall impact.
Even though the relationship between Craster and Page seems to bloom out of nowhere, it’s still easier to overlook than some of cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s self-conscious camera trickery on display in the ballet sequence. From double images to instant wardrobe changes, at times it jolts us out of its hypnotic trance by all-too-forcefully reminding us it’s a movie after all, instead of letting Shoes wash over us as if we were part of Lermontov’s company standing in the wings, waiting for our cue to dance both as if our lives depended on it and because we must.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.