The centrepiece of a UK-wide celebration, Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger, the 1948 film The Red Shoes, returns to the big screen. The event, which hopes to introduce the bold, transgressive film-making of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to a new audience, leans into the extraordinary ‘high style’ of The Red Shoes. This is no gentle introduction: the film represents Powell and Pressburger at their most vibrant: The Red Shoes immerses the viewer in a world of colour, dance and art.
The screening on Saturday 9th December featured a special dance performance. Celebrating the intoxication of dancing feet, Barbican Theatre presented a new dance featuring Tap, Flamenco and Street dance – the footwork led the audience through the bar and into the cinema – toward the brilliance of Powell and Pressburgers’ Red Shoes.
Borrowing from the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes turns away from its gothic (and gory) origins and transplants the story into the world of ballet. A theatre in Covent Garden is about to show a production from Ballet Lermontov, a company led by the enigmatic, world-weary Boris Lermontov (played by Anton Walbrook). Dance and music students, having queued for hours, eagerly pile into the cheap seats. Among them is composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). As the students cheer on their music professor, who has written the score for Lermontov’s new ballet, Hearts on Fire, Julian realises that the music being played, is his.
Powell and Pressburger are establishing plot and motive. The camera sears into the face of a young woman, watching the ballet intently. Socialite and ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) already dances professionally, but has her eye on the next rung of the ladder. At an after-party, she introduces herself to Lermontov and gets herself an invite to the next rehearsal. In a fit of rage, Craster hastily writes a letter to Lermontov regarding the music. The next day, he interrupts Lermontov’s breakfast to ask for the letter back. Instead, Craster is offered a job, coaching the orchestra. He takes it.
A great film about the precarious nature of showbusiness, The Red Shoes brutally illustrates Ballet Lermontov’s revolving-door policy, when the prima ballerina announces that she is engaged. Lermontov fires her on the spot. One cannot, in his view, commit to both art and love. Victoria and Julian meet with the impresario and his team. There is a new ballet on the books, a female principal is required, and the score needs work. Within moments, The Red Shoes intertwines the lives of Lermontov, Page and Craster.
The Red Shoes takes us from backstage to the best seat in the house. As the company perform the new ballet, Powell and Pressburger play with scale and perspective: we move from a panoramic view of the stage, to intensely-lit close-ups. The mise-en-scene, exuberant in three-strip Technicolour, is styled along expressionist lines. The outline of the ballet is simple enough: an ambitious young girl is offered a pair of enchanted red ballet shoes. She will become, on wearing them, a great dancer. As Shearer’s character jumps into the shoes in that iconic moment, she realises, too late, that she is doomed to dance forever. The red shoes never get tired.
The ballet – a show within a show – is a hallmark of Powell and Pressburger’s style. We follow Shearer through giddying changes of scenery, into a dream-like, kaleidoscopic state. Art forms collide: hand-painted screens interlink with super-imposed images of a crashing sea roaring over the floodlights, contrasting the tradition of theatre with the innovation of early cinema. As the fantasy becomes a nightmare, the dancer’s psychological torment is actualised by ghoulish creatures surrounding her. It is a nod to the roots of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories; a primal, indecipherable terror. The emotive, Oscar-winning score from Brian Easdale completes the concept Powell and Pressburger wanted to articulate as film-makers. The Red Shoes not only explores how cinema can represent psychology, but its drawing of female characters is a real step forward. The lure of fame, the sweat and toil that goes into making an ‘effortless’ performance, Shearer’s heroine does not evoke the genteel post-war world of high culture: she is unashamedly pushing herself to the very top. The jewelled coronet she wears to parties isn’t so much a declaration as a disguise. Page may have started the film as a society belle, but while she has elegance, she’s also got grit. As the film enters its final act, Page will have to decide between art and love. It is an impossible choice.
For all its pyrotechnics, The Red Shoes works so well as a dance film because of its authenticity. Shearer was already an experienced ballerina by the time she was cast as Page. The two male dancers who work with her also represent the best in the business. Leonide Massine (playing Grischa Ljubov) was a principal at the Ballets Russes by the time he was 19, and Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky) also had a background in dance, but is best remembered for scaring generations of children as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher. It is this grounding, in technique and discipline, that makes the heightened emotional moments so disturbing. There are elements of horror and spectacle within this film, and much of The Red Shoes feels like a fever dream. But the organisation of ideas: a building sense of dread, the giddying highs and humiliating lows of success and failure in the arts, means that the film is more finely tuned to our waking thoughts.
As The Red Shoes reaches its ambivalent conclusion, the uneasiness that lingers feels like it should belong to a more contemporary film. It is Powell and Pressburger’s refusal to make easily-defined films that has given their body of work such longevity. The Red Shoes escapes the confines of a traditionally-told story, and takes us into a psychological narrative of unresolved ambition and unnamed desire.
Reviewed by Helen Tope
Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger is a major UK-wide celebration of one of the greatest and most enduring filmmaking partnerships. Supported by National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. bfi.org.uk/powell-and-pressburger