Saturday, February 20, 2010

Movies: The Red Shoes

This Powell & Pressburger classic has just undergone a stunning restoration and is playing on Film Forum's screen. Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell's widow and three time Academy Award winner (she has been the editor on every Martin Scorsese film since Raging Bull), was there last night to introduce the film and answer questions (she and Scorsese served as advisors on the restoration, done at UCLA by Robert Gitt). She was a gracious and interesting speaker, but most of her comments were of a nature too technical for me to understand (which is rather delightful, considering the fact that she looks like a grandmother who doesn't know how to use a cell phone, much less digitally edit a feature-film). She did, however, explain how technicolor films were made from three individually colored strips, the composite of which offers the richness of color, but also leads to blurring when the strips fall out of registration. Further, because the film exists on three original strips rather than one, there was three times the amount of film to restore.

But it was well worth it. The movie is gorgeous. Clean, clear, and sharp, it maintains the nostalgic touch of hand-coloring. The plot, of a driven red-haired ballerina torn between two driven men—the director of the Ballet Lermontov, her employer and mentor, and Julian Craster, the company's young genius composer, with whom she falls in love, revels in the dreamy visuals. Lermontov, insanely jealous and uncompromising, fires Craster from the company when he discovers the affair, and the ballerina, unwilling to sacrifice her relationship, leaves the company. While Craster flourishes, writing his first opera, his new wife wilts, longing to dance again. The night of his opera's opening, she secretly returns to Lermontov, to restage her famous ballet, The Red Shoes, a part written for her by both Craster and Lermontov before the affair began, based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale in which a girl goes to a ball in a pair of enchanted red shoes, which refuse to stop dancing, even when she's tired, unto her death. The film's plot echoes that of the ballet, for, unable to decide between her love of Julian and of the dance, the ballerina at last throws herself off a balcony in Monte Carlo onto train tracks, when her husband is at last able to remove the red shoes.

The film's glory is the central section in which the Ballet of the Red Shoes is performed, transforming from a Rogers-and-Hammerstein-style musical number to a Daliesque surrealist landscape, and in which the ballerina finds herself led by the enchanted shoemaker, a clownish, hobo-like conjurer. The art director, at Powell & Pressburger's demand, allowed the stage to open to the camera and explore the dance as a dream-state; so that the ballerina sees her own self dancing more than once, which duplication could never actually happen onstage. She floats on air, becomes a bird, a flower, a cloud. To mark the passage of time, a newspaper page flutters through the empty streets; the paper takes the shape of a man, and suddenly is a man, her partner dressed in newsprint, even his face painted, she in a dirt-stained and bedraggled gown. Soon he crumbles back into a sheet of paper. At last, her partner is dressed as a priest, and the corps de ballet, in black shoes, march through her funeral. Still, she cannot die, until she is released from the red shoes.

The film's incredibly tender ending, which brought me to tears, shows the sobbing Lermontov introducing the ballet the fateful evening our dancer has ended her career by leaping from the balcony. The curtain draws, and the opening act of the ballet is performed, and empty spotlight moving where her body would be.

The film's ending—in which a female artist sacrifices her career for love, dates it, for a contemporary studio would never make such an ethically irresponsible statement. That said, as unrealistic and inhumane as he is, the ballet master Lemontov is progressive enough to sneer at her choice, even asking her directly how she could give up her dreams to be a mere housewife surrounded by screaming children. And even if I don't intellectually support her choice, if forced, I'm certain I would choose the same. That said, Lermontov and Craster's insistence that she make that choice belies that neither of them truly love her, and neither warrant any sacrifice (for the love that deserves the sacrifice is the love that never demands it).

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