Sunday, January 4, 2009

Film Ignorance #20: The Red Shoes

Film: The Red Shoes
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Michael Powell (and Emil Pressburger)
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer
Year: 1948
Reason for Ignorance: Waited to watch it with the Mrs.

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Even though I rated this movie Yep, It's a Classic, The Red Shoes was a massive disappointment. It's considered by many to be the best film by The Archers, a mid-century team of Brits - director Michael Powell and writer Emil Pressburger - who are among the most acclaimed creators of all time. I'd seen only one Archers film, Black Narcissus, which was excellent, and a Powell solo film, Peeping Tom, which is like Psycho meets Rear Window, but better than either of those admittedly great films. (George Romero has said many times that another Archers film, The Tales of Hoffmann, is what inspired him to become a filmmaker.)

Which is why, by being merely a classic, The Red Shoes was disappointing. And that score is a composite, because the vast bulk of this picture is just a good movie - a standard midcentury melodrama about love and art. Two young people, Julian Craster and Victoria Page, unexpectedly gain employment with the world-renowned Lermontov Ballet company, Craster as a composer and Page as a dancer. Through a series of unexpected events, Craster becomes the composer for the new ballet, The Red Shoes, and Page is the star. Along the way, they fall in love, but eventually become involved in a tragic love triangle (the third element of the triangle being, of course, "Art").

I certainly want to lay the fault for this movie at the feet of Pressburger, the writer; the melodrama is so cliched, the characters so stereotypical, that the whole thing just seems by the numbers. But the acting is great - particularly Walbrook, as "heartless monster" Lermontov, and various supporting members of the ballet company. And Powell's direction is so good, his gorgeous Technicolor cinematography makes everything, from the outlandish costumes to Shearer's hair, glow like it's ablaze.

But that's not what makes it a classic. If Ben-Hur is a technically impressive but crappy movie built around an exciting chase scene, The Red Shoes is a technically impressive but only good movie built around the best dance sequence ever filmed. For about twenty minutes, right in the middle of the film, we watch the performance of the Red Shoes Ballet and are transported to a ballet that unites music and color unlike anything I've ever seen before. Even the best dance sequences in An American in Paris don't compare to The Red Shoes ballet. The ballet is touching and terrifying, and represents a triumph of spectacle which might still be unmatched in cinematic history.

For that reason alone, this movie is a classic. Otherwise, it's merely a pretty good story that indulges deeply in stock characters and a rather silly belief in a romanticized vision of art (ie, "Art"). I've got plenty more Archers movies on my list, so I hope the rest of them are more like Black Narcissus than The Red Shoes...

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


Austin fitness trainer said...

"the best dance sequences in An American in Paris don't compare to The Red Shoes ballet."

That is saying something. I just saw it and liked it a lot.

MovieMan0283 said...

I have a weird relationship to the Archers - I find the films generally perplexing with some of the oddest story structures I've ever encounter, but I often end up liking them for just that reason. Usually, though, it's the human element that puts me over the edge as much as the visual one - which is why the goofily sweet-natured Life & Death of Col. Blimp is my favorite Powell-Pressburger (and the only one presently in my collection).

I think Red Shoes was the first I ever saw but I can't recollect my impression except that it was, of course, visually impressive but that, like you, I wasn't quite swept up by the story. I've been meaning to revisit it for a long time.

One Powell-Pressburger film (the only one I've reviewed on my own blog) The Small Back Room is interestingly offbeat. It's a rather small, black-and-white film which came out around the same time of The Red Shoes. Despite its mostly limited scope, they managed to squeeze in one off-the-wall bravura sequence in which the character (an cynical alcoholic) is menaced by a giant-sized bottle of hard liquor.

(My review is here: