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?!!!
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