Classics Corner: “The Red Shoes”

29 12 2010

After seeing “Black Swan” and being totally captivated, I decided it was about high time that I caught up with “The Red Shoes,” a classic movie about ballet.  Turns out, I was missing quite a bit.  Hopefully the ballet fever inspires other curious film lovers to check out this 1948 British film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

At their core, the movies aren’t that different.  Both are movies about a dancer torn by how far they want to sacrifice themselves to their art.  Much like “Black Swan” put on an outstanding visual show for audiences today, “The Red Shoes” was – and still is – a Technicolor feast that’s vividly and brightly illuminated visuals that wowed audiences six decades ago.  But while Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is best viewed by artists or cinephiles, “The Red Shoes” is completely relevant to anyone caught by two conflicting desires in their life.

For Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), it’s her heart and her feet.  A promising ballet dancer who’s good but not great, she’s taken on by Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) the same day he hires a new composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), to coach the orchestra.  Her natural grace wins over Lermontov, who casts her as the lead in his new ballet, “The Red Shoes.”

An adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (like the movie itself), the ballet tells the story of a dancer who receives a pair of red ballet shoes.  Eager to dance, she takes off across the world in the shoes.  But when she tires, the red shoes don’t and keep on dancing.  Craster is hired to compose the music for the ballet, and the nearly 20-minute dance sequence is a joyous and transcendent exaltation of the power of orchestra and dance.

What comes out of the ballet is more than just praise for Victoria and Craster; the two fall madly in love.  The business-focused Lermontov sees their affair as a distraction to Victoria’s dancing, claiming that she can never reach her full potential if love holds her down.  He fires Craster only to have Victoria walk out on the company.  She’s happy in marriage yet still longs to dance “The Red Shoes” again, never finding the satisfaction in other ballets that she found in that role.  But since Lermontov owns the rights, she’s forced to make a clear-cut decision of love or career with heartbreaking implications.

The beginning of “The Red Shoes” is a little too expository for me, and the whole thing is a touch too melodramatic.  But compared to some of the classic movies I’ve watched recently, this rings very true and feels hardly dated at all.  As a story of choices and commitment, there’s nothing classic about it – this is just as contemporary as anything nowadays.


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