Saturday, 1 January 2011

Powell & Pressburger #2. The Red Shoes (1948)

Moira Shearer stars in Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948)...

There's no easy way to say this. After adoring A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) I was eager to begin on another of Powell & Pressburger's acclaimed works, and The Red Shoes, frequently hailed as the duo's finest hour, came highly recommended by friends and critics alike. At first I was enraptured - Brian Easdale's evocative score swells over the pastel-coloured titles, giving way to a scene of boundless energy as a young crowd flood into the theatre and take their seats. From here the film sets us up for an epic tale of shattered dreams and spurned passions, but for all of its formal majesty, technical precision and artistic ambition, The Red Shoes left me flat. It's not a bad film, but it's certainly nowhere near as good as that weighty reputation would suggest. Let's start with the good stuff...

Obviously Powell & Pressburger were masters of their craft, and the direction here is sublime - especially during the film's hypnotic centerpiece, a production of the titular ballet. Rather than observing the performance from the front row, Powell & Pressburger open up the stage, free their camera and employ all kinds of visual trickery to allow it real scope; it's almost like watching another film - a short interjected into the main feature. The dancing, costumes, set design, lighting - they're of an impeccable standard, and I defy anyone not to get swept up in the magic. My favorite shot finds Victoria (Moira Shearer) twirling down a darkly lit corridor in slow motion, which is almost like a snapshot from winter reverie. It's a breathtaking moment, and I'll admit that, for the art and set design alone, The Red Shoes is worth a watch. But that really is all I can recommend it for.

There are many who claim that The Red Shoes presents an in-depth look at the uncompromising world of ballet, but I saw it as a fairytale of chance and there's no greater exploration of intense rehearsal, one-upmanship and jealousy here than in 42nd Street (Bacon, 1933) or The Night They Raided Minsky's (Friedkin, 1968) - although they were about Broadway musicals and burlesque theatre respectively. And both films played with the same stereotypes as The Red Shoes - the cold, steely producer and young, innocent do-gooder who gets to be the star of the show. But what 42nd Street had in rat-a-tat spectacle and Minsky's had in high-wire tomfoolery, The Red Shoes downplays into a laughably sincere melodrama.

Jack Cardiff's flushed Technicolor photography is, technically speaking, perfect. Every colour is so rich and absorbing, so filled with feeling - but when combined with the strained operatics of the story it just feels far too... well, instructive. Melodrama is designed to hit the highest notes and draw out a physical reaction from the audience, but I've never seen one that felt so precisely judged as to come off as cold; withdrawn into its own emotional mapping. The performances in the film are parodically high-strung, best exemplified by the final scene between Victoria, Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and Craster (Marius Goring), which finds Craster falling on his knees begging for love, Lermontov bellowing about the choice between a life on the stage and life as a housewife, and Vicky, inbetween, sobbing her little heart out.

The tragic denouement is where I finally parted company with, well... the company. Powell & Pressburger are gifted storytellers, but the art-imitating-life (and vice versa) plot has no depth, and follows a predictable arc. Lermontov is the shoemaker of Victoria's story, but the path getting us to that setup is too labored and unrealistic as to have the desired effect - to make us feel trapped in their destructive relationship. A scene where Lermontov stares himself down in a mirror, boiling with anger before smashing it with his fist, is laughably histrionic. I just didn't find anybody to really care about in the film, which seemed far too wrapped up in its own theatrical grandeur to really hit the right emotional beats. It's exquisitely designed, but I just felt unconnected from what was going on, and if you're not interested in the story or characters then The Red Shoes is just an overlong, albeit pretty, ballet picture.

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