Now, for “Film Favorites”, two of the most beautiful experiments in color ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the champions of feverish color and quintessentially British cinema, probably never found a subject more perfectly attuned to their signature style than The Red Shoes. A tale of upcoming ballet star Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) studying under the dictatorial, monomaniacal Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), torn between Lermontov’s demands and her true love for his composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), The Red Shoes is the pinnacle of their fixation on obsession and oppression as they intertwine and tangle to the point where flying into the sun is indistinguishable from crashing and burning. Under their vision, art and the pursuit of art become an Icarus act, and it is only fitting that the two men seemed primed and driven to obsessively push the limits of color cinema until they too would burn brightly before falling into the sun.
For the sensitive, even paranoid Pressburger, this “falling” meant laying low and taking on less radical acts of screenwriting (he was primarily the writer in the pairing, with Powell serving the majority of the camera purposes) to preserve his sanity. For Powell, in contrast, this meant pushing boldly forth into the unknown, the black hole of cinematic horror, and using color to galvanize his trademark interest in obsession in a sickly green cinematography. With Peeping Tom, his 1960 film (made without Pressburger), he pushed his obsessive fascination with obsession to its limits, openly indicting directors and audiences and releasing arguably the most radical moral lambasting of cinema ever unleashed on top of the world. Fly to the sun, Powell did, but only by turning inward toward his own dark heart. In doing so, he flew too close to moral questions the public wasn’t ready to answer, and he prematurely ended his career when he was disowned by most of cinematic society.
The post-WWII cinematic period and the shift in classical filmmaking giving way to the angry young directors of the French New Wave would test and weaken the partnership between Powell and Pressburger (who called themselves “The Archers”). But while they would eventually turn away from cinematic glory, they could do arguably no wrong throughout the 1940s. In 1947 and 1948, specifically, they arguably peaked all of British cinema with the marvelous one-two punch of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the titles of which give away their primary importance: transforming cinematic color into a new language for a performative study of the human mind.
And what more fitting an avenue for an exploration of the possibilities of cinematic color than a deep dive into the world of British musical theater? And more specifically, what could be more fitting than ballet? Firstly, Hans Christian Andersen’s play The Red Shoes is an uncommonly fitting backdrop for the thematic texture of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, so good on them for couching their study of love and artistic perfection in arguably the most fitting work on the theme. In the play, a woman is gifted with a pair of magical red ballet shoes that will grant her sublimity in her dancing skills, but at the cost of never being able to stop dancing! As art mimics life, so must life mimic art, and the operatic tragedy of existence that plays so luminously in the play infests the very fabric of the film and follows Victoria as she tests her resolve for artistic perfection at the expense of her sanity and her human decency.
Thematically fitting, surely, but what is more noble about The Red Shoes, the film, is how Powell and Pressburger (primarily Powell the visualist) recreate the abstract, overpowering beauty of ballet as an art form whilst adding in the hellfire of cinematic flourishes unique to their chosen medium. The recreation of the ballet itself, a twenty minute chunk in the middle of the film, is as splendid and exalted a cinematic treatise in majesty washing over you as any moment in all of cinema, and it could be created only in cinema. Obviously, it understands the expressionist tinge to much modern ballet. But the hyperbolically lofty framing, the magnetic superimposition work, and the specificity of the cutting and fading between wide angles and voyeuristic close-ups that transforms the ballet into an impressionist collage of moments is distinctly cinematic, distinctly sinister, and distinctly wonderful. Obviously, it isn’t ballet as it actually exists. In fact, it’s better; ballet as it exists in Victoria’s impressionable mind, beckoning and tormenting her in equal measure with a transportative power both angelic and demonic.
However, color remains the focus, one year after Powell and Pressburger found heightened color to be a perfect Sherpa for their exploration into female sexual repression and Western colonial superciliousness in Black Narcissus. For The Red Shoes (which borrowed cinematographer Jack Cardiff from Narcissus and added Surrealist painter Hein Heckroth for production design), they pushed their Technicolor art to even loftier heights by investigating the inner dissonance and confusion brewing in one woman as she is beset by the unfair “either-ors” of life. Many years later, Darren Aaronofsky would update The Red Shoes with a morning dose of ice water and neo-realist grime, turning it into an out-and-out exploitation film masquerading in thematically complex airs. A noble achievement on its own, but no match for the Gothically Victorian perfection of the images Powell and Pressburger conjure. Conjure being the optimal word; something about The Red Shoes feels like magic, especially the film’s continual fixation on the contrast between the ghostly white, sulking skin of Victoria’s empty face with the lustful fire of her hair (as if her inner being has externalized itself at the top of her head and sapped the life from the rest of her body).
Which is only one mere note of Shearer’s deviously empty performance, transforming passion into a neurotic, necrotic liveliness that simultaneously saps all other notes of humanity from her visage. The character seems far more interested in performance than humanity, and fittingly, something about her feels inhuman, so manicured and innocent in her theatrical acting so as seem deliberate in every possible action. It makes Shearer’s persona into a deliciously icy trick of a performance that explores the internal loss of humanity found in the act of turning oneself into a public figure. She becomes a vessel for success and not a person. The charismatic but nasty Walbrook and the deceptively confused Goring are perfect in their roles, as well. But Shearer’s performance, especially when she is choked by the oppressively vocal opulence of the sets that eviscerate her humanity and turn her into nothing but a fish in an aquarium, is just soul-destroying.
The Red Shoes is something of an elemental fable about passion and the destruction of identity, like all of the Archers’ films, yet something about it remains so impeccably British. There’s a grand theatricality and pomp to The Red Shoes that could only be British in origin, but it never once grows stodgy or overly-manicured. Probably because Powell and Pressburger understood the fundamental British qualities of their work – the melodrama, the sense of good taste and public performance and classicism – and played with them. Sometimes, as with performance and theatricality, they accentuated these features until their films became both positively luscious homages to British convention and snarky, even ribald lines in the sand against the conservative airs and stifling gentility of British mores. Other times, they just smacked those mores away to create something so pervasively heightened it feels positively naughty. For all of the arch-sincerity of the Archers, their films burn with droll comedy and experimentation with high-camp that extends theatricality to the liveliest regions of all cinema. Because it occupies a world where honesty has been covered up and exterminated by artifice in the first place, The Red Shoes’ presentational artifice will forever remain emotionally honest.