I've always gravitated to escapist cinema, whether the genre is horror, science fiction, the surreal, the western, or in this case, the musical. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes is definitely the ultimate movie about dance, ballet in particular. But as David Ehrenstein points out at the start of a brilliant essay included in Criterion's upcoming Blu-ray reissue of the film:
It is a kind of musical, a mainstream favorite, as well as a Technicolor spectacular. But musical generally comes as a hyphenate with comedy attached to it. The Red Shoes is drama.It precedes the colorful MGM spectacles so prevalent throughout the fifties, directly inspiring An American in Paris (1951) for one. However, it is the psychodrama at the root of this fairy tale adaptation which gives the film its weight, both visually and subtextually.
In The Red Shoes, Victoria Page (the striking Moira Shearer), rising star of a ballet company run by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), is cast as the lead in the ballet. Lermontov obsessively clutches onto Vicky, offering her a chance to become the greatest dancer the world has ever known... and not altogether selflessly. Meanwhile, what begins as a tense collaboration between Vicky and Lermontov's musical director, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), soon blossoms into a love affair as the Ballet of "The Red Shoes" begins performances.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Red Shoes heightens the intensity of the melodrama, crystallizing Vicky's dilemma as luminously as the newfound film grain in this wondrous 2009 digital restoration (financed in part by Powell protege Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation). What struck me as I watched this iteration of the film (which I've seen at least a half-dozen times before) is how sympathetic one grows to Lermontov's side of the argument. Surely in 1948, audiences may have felt just as torn as Vicky between true love, in the form of Craster, and devotion to art, in the form of Lermontov. But Craster's behavior as he pleads with Vicky on the eve of his greatest musical triumph, begging her to abandon her return to the stage in order to follow him on his burgeoning career, seems ridiculously stupid and petty from a twenty-first century perspective. Even Lermontov at his most exploitative seems to be able to satisfy Vicky's, indeed every ambitious person's, need to self-actualize. One need not be a feminist to empathize with Lermontov in this situation.
It is this kind of dramatic heft which separates The Red Shoes from other musicals, even today. Its triumph as a musical drama is still relatively unusual, as even Scorsese (who attempted to duplicate its success with New York, New York) could probably attest. Criterion's lustrous reissue contemporizes The Red Shoes for the viewer, removing it from the context of its post-war period and making its drama relevant to today's fresh eyes.
The Red Shoes is available on Tuesday July 20th on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.