The Red Shoes (1948)

“Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.”

‘The Red Shoes’, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1948, is a British romantic drama starring  Moira Shearer, Marius Goring and Anton Walbrook. Shearer plays Vicky Page, an aspiring ballerina who bewitches two men: Boris Lermontov, a Svengali-like theatrical impresario played by Walbrook, and Julian Craster, a young, brash composer played by Goring. Lermontov recruits both Page and Craster to put on his latest ballet called ‘The Red Shoes’. This act brings Craster and Page together which fires the producer’s jealousy. Rejecting his two young stars creates a chain of events that leads to tragedy. As with Powell and Pressburger’s other films from the late 1940s, for example ‘Black Narcissus’, ‘The Red Shoes is a strange and absorbing mixture of fantasy, colour and melodrama. Watching this, it is clear where Darren Aronofsky got his inspiration for ‘Black Swan’, but Powell and Pressburger’s movie is more subtle and sweeter than Aronofsky’s dark horror. The decision to cast real dancers gives the film an authenticity, and this is cemented by an extraordinary central sequence showing large chunks of the ballet within the film. For fifteen minutes, the movie is effectively paused whilst the ballet takes place, but the story of the ballet is essentially a mise-en-abîme, a version of the narrative in miniature. Structurally, therefore, ‘The Red Shoes’ works perfectly, but it is the look of the film, the theatricality, colour and innovative effects, all perfectly deployed to support the melodrama, that makes the film special. I’ve seen a number of Powell and Pressburger’s movies now, and although ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ is still my favourite, ‘The Red Shoes’ is the greatest demonstration of their ability to seamlessly combine human drama and spectacular fantasy.

Would I recommend it? So far, each Powell and Pressburger movie has a quality to them that makes them extraordinary, but the really exciting thing is that each quality is different. Their films change and evolve. I’d watch this in a double bill with ‘Black Swan’.

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