Criterion Files #44: The Red Shoes

By  · Published on December 9th, 2010

In regards to the somewhat subjective idea of influence as it pertains to any given element of cinema the list of filmmakers whose names you’ll hear is, for the most part with a few variables, the same. From the perspective of an outsider/spectator all we can ever truly ascertain about influence is little more than an educated assumption, unless heard straight from the horse’s mouth. One of the variables on a given list of names of influential filmmakers is the partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. That is, unless, you’re talking directly to someone like Martin Scorsese.

A good deal of this is the difference in distinction between remaining part of the cultural conscious and having a fingerprint on modern filmmaking. Whether that fingerprint has been smudged and unrecognizable through dilution over time it’s still felt to those who are familiar. Those like Martin Scorsese, who may be the all-time champion of The Red Shoes, headed the painstaking digital restoration to make the film look as it currently does; which is nothing short of gorgeous.

Why would he do that? Because it, along with other Powell films like Peeping Tom (also unlike most films of its time and closely resembling films of ours), mean that much to him as an artist and fan of film, and if he can make you feel the same then he’ll do what he can.

Beauty by the Beasts

Working together throughout much of their career, Powell and Pressburger partnered on some of the most revered films in the history of the British film industry. However, unlike some of their other popular contemporaries of the time, such as David Lean, their pictures haven’t reached across through the decades (at least here in the U.S.) despite being pictures that are considerably more modern in style and artistry than most pictures of their time. They are pictures that are small in stature compared to the likes of budgetary beasts, but no less than equally dense visually and most certainly more detailed in the psychology of character more often than not. This observation is easily prevalent in their original story of a ballet production of the Hans Christian Andersen story.

The story within the story that is the narrative of the ballet is of a young woman seduced by the beauty of a pair of red dancing shoes. Upon purchasing the shoes she begins to dance as never before, but when the time comes for her to want to take them off they won’t let her. They must never stop dancing and they never tire. The girl, consumed by their lack of fatigue and never being able to stop, dies.

The story about telling this story is of a trio of perfectionists (a renowned producer, a talented and unproven young composer, and an enchanting and aspiring lead dancer) battling with their own internal tug-of-war regarding their desire to create their best work while sacrificing, or not, for the sake of love; they each decide whether they can rid themselves of their red shoes, or die.

The film was almost unanimously considered amongst every major awards voting body to be the most beautifully photographed color picture of its year, and now thanks to Scorsese and his hired team, we can see why. Vibrant isn’t an adjective often connected to films of the 1940s and prior, but the colors literally jump off the screen while the hypnotic and, eventually, surreal dance sequences (think something along the lines of Dali’s dream sequences in Hitchcock’s Spellbound) matched with the pounding score grab you and pull. It’s a perfect representation of something that attains grand without necessarily being big.

Depictions of Obsession and Schizophrenic Immersion

There’s little pretense that the reason The Red Shoes is offered up as this week’s entry into the Criterion Files is because of the release of Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan. Certainly, films set in the world of graceful and expressive dance are not a commonality in the history of film, but having seen both The Red Shoes and Aronofsky’s picture – which most resembles the work of early Polanski, like The Tenant and Repulsion – something both films share is their depiction of the expressive artists hunting to find their character, or to find the note that encapsulates the emotion. Both pictures understand the struggles that come with the pursuit of perfection, whether it be with one’s own inability to locate an inner alter-self or one’s inability to balance their alter-self with their desired self.

Though most will never acknowledge the influence of Powell and Pressburger on modern filmmaking because most will never take the time to seek out what filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppolla consider directly influential on their own approach to filmmaking, the visual splendor of The Red Shoes, its transporting dance displays and the timelessness of its tragic portrayal of conflicting obsessions ring true and it remains one of the most viscerally representative and darkly romantic films we have.

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