The Red Shoes (1948) directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
I was interested in The Red Shoes after watching Black Swan, as it is the most referenced film concerning ballet. Apparently this was the film that Brian De Palma saw that made him want to become a director and was highly influential in the dance sequences of An American in Paris and Singing in the Rain. Cautiously optimistic of its high praise going into the movie, I am glad to report that it lives up to the hype and is well deserving of its classic status.
I suppose the main question that The Red Shoes asks is, "What does it take to be great?" Undoubtedly, it takes great talent, but there must also be an almost ruthless ambition and desire to succeed. And with this desire to be the best also comes great sacrifice. In today's age of celebrity, we often get a first hand look at what athletes and entertainers must do to get where they are at and life isn't always peaches and cream. One of the first things to go is personal relationships. When a singer is on tour months at a time, it is often difficult to maintain a love life. When actresses are young and in their prime, they often hold off on having children. It isn't that they don't want to have a family, it's just that they love what they do too much to stop. As the film's antagonist Boris Lermontov says, "You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never." He argues that the very best at what they do live, breathe, and eat their craft. Everything else is just a distraction. That is the conflict in The Red Shoes, the balance between a young dancer's dream to become great and her love life.
The film's title, The Red Shoes, is the name of the ballet in the movie which in itself is named after the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. In the story, a magical pair of red shoes compels whoever wears it to dance uncontrollably. It is an obvious parallel to Vicky's situation in the movie which doesn't need to be spelled out.
This film is part romance, part comedy, part dark plotting and tragedy and one hundred percent artistically captivating. Very few films grasp such a wide range of moods and genres and even fewer do it as well as The Red Shoes. There are several striking characteristics about this movie that makes it so great. First is the lead acting by Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook who play the dancer Vicky and the ballet company's iron fisted director Boris respectively. Only an actual dancer could have played Vicky's part and Shearer can act to boot. While she doesn't quite have the radiance of the big Hollywood actresses, her screen presence is quite formidable, especially when she is dancing. Walbrook plays Boris as cold and cynical, yet charming and engaging. He has a fiery passion regarding Vicky, but not in a romantic way. He is not jealous of Julian because he is her lover, but because he feels Julian will prevent her from achieving greatness (under Boris's guidance of course).
It is impossible to watch The Red Shoes and not notice the lush colors. It is films like this and The Wizard of Oz that makes one wonder why cinema abandoned Technicolor. You simply don't see these vibrant hues in today's films. Martin Scorsesse has said that this is one the most beautiful color films ever.
Finally, I must talk about The Red Shoes ballet in the middle of the movie which is in a word, amazing. This sequence is vivid in colors and imagery and nifty special effects which create an almost surreal dreamlike experience not just for Vicky but the viewer as well. The background seamlessly dissolves from one realm to the other providing backdrop for a well choreographed dance sequence. All told, the ballet sequence lasts over fifteen minutes, an almost unheard of time in movies. In fact, prior to this movie it was unheard of to have such a long dance break in a movie as it was the first to do so. Its critical success allowed future musicals like An American in Paris and Singing in the Rain to follow suit.