Monday, 8 February 2016


“The dance can reveal everything mysterious that is hidden in music, and it has the additional merit of being human and palpable. Dancing is poetry with arms and legs.” - Charles Baudelaire

Last week we watched a classic old film, which although I had heard lots about I had never actually seen. It was Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film “The Red Shoes”, starring  Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. It is loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, but is more of a chronicle of the world of ballet dancers, teachers and impresarios. It is one of the early British colour films and it quickly became one of the most popular British films in the post-WWII period. The film is included among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

The film has original music by Brian Easdale and cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and is well regarded for its creative use of Technicolor. Filmmakers such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese have named it one of their all time favourite films. The movie employs the story within a story device, with the lives of the dancers, choreographers and impresarios being the main story, and a ballet they are producing being the other story. The film includes a staging of the ballet they are working on, which runs for about 15 minutes.

The plot is as follows: Under the authoritarian rule of charismatic ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Wallbrook), his protégés realise the full promise of their talents, but at a price: Utter devotion to their art and complete loyalty to Lermontov himself. Under his near-obsessive guidance, young ballerina Victoria Page (Shearer) is poised for superstardom, but earns Lermontov’s scorn when she falls in love with Julian Craster (Goring), composer of “The Red Shoes”, the ballet Lermontov is staging to showcase her talents. Vicky leaves the company and marries Craster, but still finds herself torn between Lermontov’s demands and those of her heart.

Pressburger originally wrote the screenplay for Alexander Korda as a vehicle for Korda’s future wife Merle Oberon. After some years had passed without the film being made, Powell and Pressburger rewrote the screenplay, including more emphasis on dancing, and produced it themselves. Powell and Pressburger decided early on that they had to use dancers who could act rather than actors who could dance a bit. To create a realistic feeling of a ballet company at work, and to be able to include a fifteen-minute ballet as the high point of the film, they created their own ballet company using many dancers from The Royal Ballet. The principal dancers were Robert Helpmann (who also choreographed the main ballet), Léonide Massine (who also choreographed the role of The Shoemaker), Ludmilla Tchérina and Moira Shearer.

Boris Lermontov is the film’s dominant character, and is an obvious portrait of Sergei Pavlovich Dyagilev (1872-1929), one of the 20th century’s greatest cultural figures and the driving force of the ‘Ballets Russes’. Walbrook plays this character with restraint and is a perfect “bad guy” in a gentlemanly sort of way. Shearer and Goring as the lovers are rather more conventional leading actors and give good but perhaps slightly clichéd performances. Nevertheless Shearer is quite enchanting once she starts to dance.

The film gives an insight into the creative process in the arts, especially so the ballet, but also highlights the sad lot of the composer of the music used in ballet… The conflict between professional life and personal is well depicted, as well the way that true artists are passionate about their art. One exchange that stuck with me was: “Why do you want to dance?” Boris Lermontov asks Victoria Page; “Why do you want to live?”, is her response.

The 15 minute ballet “The Red Shoes” is a highlight of the film and this is a gloriously cinematic view of a ballet sequence. The music conducted flawlessly by Sir Thomas Beecham suits the action well and the choreography by Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine is amazing. The glorious Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff is quite stunning. Incidentally, we watched the film on Bluray, which was the copy of the 2006 digital restoration of the film done by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging. The digital pictures were frame by frame digitally restored at Prasad Corporation to remove dirt, tears, scratches, and other artifacts, giving the film its original look.

Quite an amazing film and indeed well worth looking at, especially if you like ballet, music, the arts and the creative process.

No comments:

Post a Comment