Published on September 6th, 1948 | by Padraic Coffey0
The Red Shoes (1948)
At first, it may seem perplexing that Martin Scorsese cite Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes as his favourite film. Scorsese had been longtime champion of Powell and Pressburger’s eclectic back catalogue, not to mention those films made in the wake of their partnership, including Powell’s much-maligned Peeping Tom. And yet, superficially, The Red Shoes – the story of an English ballet dancer and her relationship with the obsessive head of a studio – seems worlds away from the kind of East-Coast male-dominated films for which Scorsese is best known – Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed. Look beyond the surface, however, and the source of Scorsese’s fascination is visible.
The character of Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the impresario whose increasingly irrational demands bring the film to its tragic dénouement, could be seen as a dramatic forerunner to the kind filmmakers who dominated American cinema in the 1970s, a group of which Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (another Powell and Pressburger enthusiast) are often seen as archetypes. Lermontov’s devotion to his art has left him bereft of any personal happiness, though he shields this to the outside world through borderline masochistic mantras on the nature of creativity. “A great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit”, he tells Vicky (Moira Shearer), whom he casts in the eponymous ballet, a musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, scored by gifted young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Lermontov has no wife or children, and scolds his former prima ballerina upon sacrificing her career for marriage. He has no kith and kin outside the ballet; as he observes at the birthday party of his choreographer, “Seems a long time since I sat down to supper with my entire family.”
If The Red Shoes is initially quite slow paced and niche in its subject matter, with many lines spoken in French without the aid of English subtitles, the centrepiece of the film – a twenty minute rendition of the titular show – is astounding. Its practical in-camera effects – predating digital trickery by half-a-century – hold up remarkably well. Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography is a feast for the senses, and it is clear the legacy of The Red Shoes extends to contemporary films such as Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-sensation Black Swan (though Aronofsky denied having seen Powell and Pressburger’s film before his went into production). Restored by Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s consistent editor-of-choice since 1980, the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 in its renewed print. Introducing The Red Shoes, Scorsese said, “what keeps nourishing me over the years in this film is the spell the film casts; that is how it weaves the mystery of obsession of creativity, of the creative drive.”