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Art as vocation; art as religion; art as the purpose of life: The
Archers team of Powell and Pressburger aimed high with 'The Red Shoes'
- and scored a bull's-eye. The film is a feast for the senses:
cinematography (by Archers regular Jack Cardiff), music, acting and
ballet are combined to make a magnificent whole. Emeric Pressburger's
story appears simple at first glance, but is a challenging study of the
value and purpose of art, and of aestheticism as a creed (a term not
used lightly). It is given life by some of the most talented dancers of
the era: Leonid Myasin/Massine as lovable Grisha; Ludmilla Tchérina as
glamorous, flighty Irina; Robert Helpmann - who choreographed the title
ballet - as Ivan; Marie Rambert as herself, and Moira Shearer (Ashton's
'Cinderella') highly appealing as the heroine Vicky. The non-dancing
cast is led by Archers regulars Anton Walbrook (magnificent - why no
Oscar?) and Marius Goring (so convincing I ended up wanting to slap
The plot combines Andersen's fable, 'The Red Shoes' with elements of Dyagilev's relationships with Nizhinskii and Myasin, and the effect of the younger men's marriages. Dancer Vicky Page (Shearer) and composer Julian Craster (Goring) are taken up and encouraged by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook).
Boris is the film's dominant character, an obvious portrait of Sergei Pavlovich Dyagilev (1872-1929), one of 20C culture's greatest figures, the driving force of 'Mir Iskusstva' and the 'Ballets Russes'. However, his Scots-Russian surname alludes to Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov (1814-41), poet and author of 'A Hero of Our Time', Pushkin's successor as the voice of Russian Romanticism. Boris is an aesthete and perfectionist, a true believer in the religion of art. All his passions and energies are channelled into bringing out the best in the company that is his 'family'. He demands equal dedication from his protégés. He believes that if you have an outstanding talent, your primary duty is to give that talent its fullest expression, not fritter it away through mundane distractions and dalliances. Human relationships are transitory: what matters is the art. It is a stern, unsentimental creed, but a noble one.
Vicky and Julian begin an affair during the creation of the new ballet, 'The Red Shoes' (which we see in full, and has, in its sacrificial death-by-dancing, echoes of Stravinskii's 'Sacre du Printemps', choreographed by Nizhinskii for Dyagilev). Their love tests their commitment to Lermontov's ethic. What makes the conflict interesting and effective is that it is not trivialised as sexual rivalry: Boris is discreetly signalled as gay, like Dyagilev - something reinforced by the casting of Walbrook. (It is unnecessary to highlight the courage, in 1948, of placing centre-stage a dignified, powerful, non-caricatured gay character, played by a gay actor who had escaped Nazi persecution.) The struggle is between real Romanticism - hence Boris's sharing his name with the Byronic poet - and mere 'romance'. But the brutal climax, bringing together Andersen's story with suitably Russian overtones of 'Anna Karenina', is an evasion of decision: a character choosing death rather than commitment one way or the other. The final scene combines tragic lyricism with awareness of the unnecessary waste: and the dance, of course, goes on.
My understanding of and relationship with 'The Red Shoes' has changed and deepened with time. In girlhood, I was inclined to be relatively indulgent to Vicky and Julian. In middle age, they seem plain self-indulgent. Julian, frankly, isn't worth any sacrifice. Ballet is a "second-rate form of expression", he says in a quarrel with Boris - who, of course, launched his career. (If Boris had punched *him* instead of the mirror, how I'd have cheered!) He regards Vicky as a muse for his own fulfilment as a composer, while she frets with frustration, her pointe shoes in a drawer, her own artistic fulfilment denied. Their separate beds after marriage seem a revealing insight, not merely '40s film censorship. On the spectrum of fictional obnoxiousness, Julian's not far behind Angel Clare in 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles'. Boris's manipulations are actually *less* selfish - directed towards enabling Vicky to express *her* creativity to the maximum - not bury her talent in a drawer.
Yes - Boris's passionately held vocation and values now evoke my strongest sympathies and recognition/identification as a fellow 'true believer' in art (and long-time Dyagilev-ite). Young sentimentalists may hate him (he knows "adolescent nonsense" when he hears it!), but he speaks hard truths and much wisdom. Personal relationships are fragile; a dancer's active career can be short. If you have a gift, service to it must come first: it is a sacred duty. Domesticity can wait. Yes, he is autocratic, temperamental: prophets and visionaries usually are. And what is his job? To unite other exceptionally gifted people from diverse disciplines - painting, costume, music, dance - with *their* competing egos and artistic temperaments, to create the multifaceted art of ballet. Herding cats is easier! And yet he is capable of generosity and forgiveness, as with the prodigal Irina. A complex, moving, genuinely heroic figure, 'The Red Shoes' is more his film than Vicky and Julian's.
But what went wrong with British film? The Archers made 'The Red Shoes' in 1948; now we have vacuous romantic-comedy/chick-flick pap or drab kitchen-sinkers that might as well be TV soap episodes, betokening a loss of cultural and intellectual confidence. (In visual flair, has The Archers' torch passed to Baz Luhrmann? Time will tell!) The present cultural climate treats the arts as an optional add-on to civilisation, rather than a defining part of what it means to be civilised. The arts are constantly called upon to justify their existence in commercial or social engineering terms, not for their intrinsic worth. A film, then, in which the most compelling character advocates Art for Art's Sake - art as a sacred calling - flings a gauntlet in the face of a market-driven, anti-intellectual, anti-beauty, utilitarian society. Sergei Pavlovich/Boris Lermontov, where are you now we need you?!!!
I am biased because I have loved this film ever since I was four years
Some films, as you grow and age, lose their magic and you forget what made
you love it as a child. This film has only strengthened my love and
appreciation of it as I have grown older. I am not one to narrate a
storyline, as this film is great for more than, and even despite, it's
The beautiful colour photography of the locations, including London, Paris and Monte Carlo, will take you back to a fictional glamorous 1940's where everyone wore chic clothes and were perfectly mannered and groomed and make you wish you could visit there sometime.
The music is a highlight for me. Brian Easdale has written such a detailed and nuanced lyrical score that does not overpower any moment in the film. There are moments where the music so perfectly conveys a character's very thought, even though they are not saying a word and their face betrays not a hint of emotion.
The story is a familiar one, particularly today, of ambition and the balance between career and personal life, between a creative passion and a human one. And of course, yes there is the ballet element. I have no interest in ballet and I love the film. It does play up the prima ballerinas and haughty choreographer stereotypes, but as they are played by real ballet dancers, I think it makes it all the funnier. Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine are particularly hilarious and over the top, so full of pathos and themselves.
Anton Walbrook is the star of this film, playing a Diaghilev type character and absolutely dominates any scene he is in. He is not bombastic in a showy, hammy way. It is a more silent but deadly charismatic performance. It is a pity he did not receive an award for it. He is stern, uncompromising, cold and passionate and absolutely deadly. He is a gentleman tough guy.
Moira Shearer and Marius Goring, unfortunately do not fare so well in comparison, but they are perfectly adequate in their roles and have some touching and funny moments. It is not altogether their fault, the characters are a little bland, especially in comparison to all the other larger than life characters they are paired with. Shearer really comes good as soon as she starts dancing.
Which brings me to the fifteen minute ballet in the middle of the film. It is beautiful (and brief). The dancing is fabulous, it looks beautiful and the music is amazing. No one should fast forward this masterpiece of filmed ballet. It is cinematic, not (as filmed ballet usually is) procenium stage bound. It is a modern ballet, choreographed by Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine and is a story, perhaps even a mirror, within and of the film.
The Red Shoes combines every one of it's elements into a perfect whole. Some elements are a bit lacking, the story is very simple and given another context a bit soap opera like, but combined with the visuals, the music, the characters and the human comedy-tragedy, it is a beautiful complete film and one that will keep improving with age.
I first heard of "The Red Shoes" when I read the liner notes to an album
by the jazz/fusion group Weather Report, called "Tale Spinnin'". Therein it
said that saxophonist Wayne Shorter had seen the film a few dozen times.
Intrigued, I watched it when I noticed it in the TV listings. What a
With its focus on the tangle of lives of a ballerina, a composer, and a dictatorial impresario who uses them both, the story may have elements of a soap opera, but it's a superior soap opera. What appealed to Shorter, I'm sure, is the film's depiction of the artists' creative process. It may have been done better elsewhere, but I haven't seen it. Besides that, it's beautifully directed, beautifully photographed and sumptuous to look at throughout. The surreal title ballet is performed in a segment that is stunning, and I'm not just using that word as a cliche.
Anton Walbrook stands out as Lermontov, leader of the ballet troupe. There are many real-life artists from the ballet world in the film, including Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann. Massine is particularly effective.
Don't be put off by the notion that this is some effete art film; it's high quality AND accessible. Anyone who enjoys art (especially ballet), romance or just plain good moviemaking owes it to themselves to see it.
The film isn't THAT closely related to Hans Christian Andersen's story; but
it would be a good idea to read the story before seeing the film. It's one
of Andersen's better stories, anyway.
Another minor note: if no other consideration will sway you, see `The Red Shoes' for a perceptive look the position of the ballet composer relative to that of the dancers. For Powell and Pressburger it's no more than a diverting side issue, but it's one of the things that especially interested me. If you look at advertisements for ballet productions today, you'll notice that the composer's name is NEVER printed - even if the ballet is called `Cinderella' and the public has no way of working out whose score is being used. It puts the composer in his place, no doubt. Yet musicians at the ballet are in the habit of thinking that they're the most important people there.
I'm on their side. I happen to loathe classical ballet as such. `Swan Lake' strikes me as a lovely score disfigured by people who insist on dancing to it. Yet `The Red Shoes' makes me put all of this aside. Indeed, it would be fair to say that I simply CAN'T dislike ballet while watching the film - which is especially odd, considering some of the things it does to people.
So, yes, if `The Red Shoes' can have this effect on ME, of all people, it's surely one of the best films ever made. I can't agree at all with the people who describe the film as `melodrama' or `camp'. (The latter charge I scarcely even understand.) The story is what it is and it's told at the most realistic and sincere level appropriate. The characters who act theatrically (NOT melodramatically) are all creatures of the theatre, and have not spent not just their days but their lives in Lermontov's troupe. If you want a more understated view of things then watch the musicians. To put in a word for one of them, Brian Easdale's source music is superb: GOOD music of a kind that an English composer like Craster might well be expected to write. It's clear that Easdale wrote Craster's compositions first, and then constructed the rest of the score around them, rather than vice versa.
We saw this film years ago. It was a surprise when it was included as
part of a Michael Powell's work at the Walter Reade recently. The film
still has a great look as it seems it has been lovingly restored. Mr.
Powell, working with his usual collaborator, Emeric Pressburger,
created a film about the world of ballet that has proved to be, not
only a timeless classic, but a crowd pleaser to those who watch it for
the first time.
"The Red Shoes" is basically a fairy tale loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Pressburger gave it a vivid look that even today, appears fresh and glamorous. Those glorious colors in the film stays in the mind of the viewer forever.
The ballets shown are magnificently staged. The Red Shoes ballet by Sir Robert Helpmann and The Shoemaker by Leonide Massine, a giant in the world of ballet. The music conducted flawlessly by Sir Thomas Beecham lingers in one's mind long after the movie is over. The glorious Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff is amazing.
The acting by Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and Moira Shearer serves the story well, although the director got better performances in later films, "Peeping Tom" and "Black Narcisus", to name two. Ms. Shearer with her red hair and peaches and cream skin projects such a refined presence in the film that is hard to forget her features. The actress dressed by Jacques Fath, the famous French designer, shows why she was one of the best things that happened to the picture.
"The Red Shoes" is one of the best films about ballet thanks to the vision of its directors.
I have seen this film about 30 times in 30 years and for me this film will always be special. Astonishingly, my wife, who is a Ballet Teacher, doesn't care at all for this film finding it too 'affected'. Perhaps as I am not involved with ballet at a professional level is a reason why I can enjoy this vibrant, colourful fantasy so much, but then our ballet friends adore the film, so who knows why this film affects some so profoundly (Spielberg&Scorsese!!) and not others. Anton Walbrook's authoritative performance is so memorable and Moira Shearer dances beautifully. Perhaps because the film is so highly charged with passion and emotion it will never please everyone, but I feel this is one of the great achievements of British Cinema and a film so rich and inspirational you will never wish to forget it.
The performances are terrific (with only the odd unusual line delivery,
partly due to english being many of the actors' second language, and partly
due to the fact that all of the main dancing characters, are not
professional actors at all, but dancers - including Moira Shearer,
Australia's Robert Helpmann, Leonida Massine and Ludmilla Tcherina - which
fact considering, they do marvellous jobs).
The story's passion for ballet and music comes across to the audience, and the story is compelling and fascinating, due to the way it is told. Moira Shearer, in a career-defining role, has a wonderful presence as the young dancer Victoria Page, who becomes a star of the Lermontov Ballet Company, and dances the lead in the ballet The Red Shoes. But Anton Walbrook is truly terrific as Lemontov. One particular moment i was very impressed with was when he begins to write a letter to Victoria, and there is a closeup of his face, and on his face we can read the emotions of his letter in a very subtle way. A marvellous scene. He has a germanic cold stare in this part which really brings it to life - the character of Lemontov is entirely in his eyes.
The score is fantastic, particularly the original ballet of the red shoes itself, composed for the film by Brian Easdale. The film has such a wonderful look partly due to the fact that its production designer was a painter, Hein Heckroth.
But the element which really makes this movie great is how superbly it is directed. With glorious use of colour, it is directed in a smooth, impeccable style in the manner of Renoir - except here each frame poses not as a painting, but as a moment from a ballet.
A wonderful film to watch.
A great film speaks to each of us in a different way. To me this more than
a colourful piece of escapist entertainment, this was a glimpse into a
world of magnificent color, sumptious settings, French Haute Couture, the
theatre, music, luxury hotels, elegant opera houses, chaffeured Rolls Royce
cars, travel to the South of France - in short, everything that a child in
the near bankrupt England in 1948 had never seen and could barely imagine.
I was fascinated not only by the glimpse of an elitist life, but of the time capsule which the film presented of a time and place that no longer exists as it was at that time. The views of London in 1948, are similar to watching "World War II in Color" on the history channel. When the ballet company travelled, they took the train. Rationing may still have existed back then, and travellers could not take money out of the country, except for a ridiculously inadequate amount; therefore, if you went abroad you had to know someone with whom you could stay. I also found myself wondering how they got the money to make a technicolour film in 1947, when they began filming.
Part of the film takes place in Monte Carlo, only 20 years after the heyday of the famous Ballet Russe. In fact the ballet company in the film is quite obviously based on the Diaghilev Company. Former member Leonid Massine has a major part in the film, and Marie Rambert has a cameo role.
This is also a ballet film for those who do not really care for ballet. The plot is simple - rising young ballerina falls in love with rising young composer and must choose between him and a career possessively controlled by the impressario - and acts as a frame for the ballet. The film is as near perfection as it is possible to get, and watching it in 2004, it does not seem to have dated at all. Everyone, especially Anton Walbrook, is perfectly cast. The script is witty and occasionally humorous. The technicolour photography is superb, especially capturing Moira Shearer's flaming red hair.
The audio commentary on the DVD adds immensely to the enjoyment of the film, which is one that can be watched over and over. o understand how great this film really is, try watching Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" travesty afterwards.
`Why do you want to dance?' Anton Walbrook asks of Moira Shearer part way
through Powell and Pressburger's inventive ballet film. `Why do you want to
live?' is her cool response. Suggested by the Hans Christian Andersen story
and a project long in development by P&P, this sumptuous colour production
allows Shearer to display her excellent ballet skills alongside Robert
Helpmann and Leonide Massine, and all three are excellent.
In fact, the `Red Shoes Ballet' alone is enough to recommend this movie in the strongest terms. Also in the cast is P&P regular Marius Goring, as the composer pushed aside for the lure of the stage. Walbrook, as the emotionless impresario who is only alive within the confines of his art, is superb, and perhaps only his role as Theo in `Colonel Blimp' served him better.
The resourceful approach that characterizes so many of the Michael
Powell/ Emeric Pressburger collaborations makes "The Red Shoes" one of
the most creative and interesting of any of the "back stage" movies
that show the lives and dreams of creative artists at work. The
characters are quite interesting in themselves, and the story brings
out some worthwhile aspects of each of their natures while giving a
realistic and often fascinating look at their world.
By no means do you have to be a ballet fan to appreciate and enjoy the story or the settings. While fully convincing in themselves, they are also set up so that the most important aspects and conflicts of the plot could easily be applied to those working in other creative fields as well.
Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, and Marius Goring make a nicely balanced and intriguing trio of main characters. The opening scenes work very well in bringing them together while being enjoyable to watch in themselves. From there, the creative tensions are built up steadily as the story itself becomes even more interesting. The script makes use of the best conventions of its genre, while never allowing itself to become formulaic.
There is also a good deal of creativity in many of the individual sequences. The opening scene at the opera is particularly clever in playing off of a viewer's initial expectations. The most spectacular sequence is the "red shoes" ballet segment itself, a very imaginative and enjoyable mini-movie that also parallels some of the main story's most interesting ideas. All in all, "The Red Shoes" well deserves its reputation as a distinctive classic.
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