The Red Shoes • Art and Death in Technicolor

Greenscreening Series #19

January 13, 2023

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This Time on Greenscreening

The Red Shoes (1948) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger


The Red Shoes, the singular fantasia from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is cinema’s quintessential backstage drama, as well as one of the most glorious Technicolor feasts ever concocted for the screen. Moira Shearer is a rising star ballerina torn between an idealistic composer and a ruthless impresario intent on perfection. Featuring outstanding performances, blazingly beautiful cinematography by Jack Cardiff, Oscar-winning sets and music, and an unforgettable, hallucinatory central dance sequence, this beloved classic, dazzlingly restored, stands as an enthralling tribute to the life of the artist. - Criterion

Find The Red Shoes via Reelgood

*The Red Shoes*

Why The Red Shoes?

The 1940s was Britain's greatest decade of film. During the War, the British government funded many propaganda films to boost public morale and maintain support for the war effort. This financial backing helped studios remain open and productive during these years. Audiences flocked to cinemas during and after the war, as there was no television, and people wanted an escape from the hardships of war and the long rebuilding afterwards. Britain's filmmakers responded by crafting the majority of Britain's "greatest films of all time."

Nobody produced as many classics during this British golden age as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Calling themselves "The Archers," Powell and Pressburger progressed from propaganda (49th Parallel) to a series of masterpieces with the British identity at their core, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Black Narcissus (1947) - all classics, all worth seeing, especially if you enjoy The Red Shoes. The Red Shoes is arguably their masterpiece, a tale of artistic ambition and obsession set in a European ballet company.

The Archers were fundamentally collaborators - gatherers and leaders of talent - and The Red Shoes is peak collaboration in service of a grand artistic vision. It is one of the most beautifully designed, costumed, photographed, and choreographed films ever made. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff makes terrific use of Technicolor (just look at these stills from the film). The Archers insisted on casting real dancers in order for the film to feel authentic, including the screen debut of lead Moira Shearer. They employed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to play in the film, alongside an Oscar-winning original score. Every detail of the film is precise and expert; just what you'd expect from a duo that called themselves "The Archers" and began each film with a title card showing an arrow hitting a bullseye.

Dancing in *The Red Shoes*

Earlier in this series, we watched Singin' in the Rain, the ultimate Hollywood musical, and a backstage musical about Hollywood's transition from silent to sound. Now we come to one of the ultimate films about making art, and certainly about dancing. By casting professional dancers who could act, rather than actors who could dance, Powell and Pressburger achieved an authenticity rarely matched in musicals. The 17-minute ballet sequence was completely unique at the time, and highly influential on subsequent Hollywood musicals like An American in Paris and Oklahoma. Gene Kelly screened The Red Shoes several times for his crew in anticipation of filming An American in Paris.

The film follows two ambitious artists, dancer Victoria Page, and her director Lermontov. Both are obsessed with their art and show different sides of the cost of obsession. For these artists, life itself is about creation.

Boris Lermontov: “Why do you want to dance, Miss Page?” Victoria Page: “Why do you want to live, Mr. Lermontov?” Lermontov: “Because I ... I... must.” Victoria: “That’s my answer too.”

Dancing in *The Red Shoes*

Powell and Pressburger saw the film addressing broader questions of art's purpose in the postwar world.

“For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” -Michael Powell

For both its technical beauty and its themes, The Red Shoes is one of the most beloved films by filmmakers. Countless directors, cinematographers, production designers, and costume designers have cited The Red Shoes as a key influence. Many directors have explicitly explicitly referenced The Red Shoes in their work, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Wes Anderson, and Guillermo del Toro.

Guillermo del Toro citing *The Red Shoes* as an explicit reference

Scorsese is among the film’s most vocal fans, writing "there’s no other picture that dramatizes and visualizes the overwhelming obsession of art, the way it can take over your life. But on a deeper level, in the movement and energy of the filmmaking itself, is a deep and abiding love of art, a belief in art as a genuinely transcendent state." Scorsese even sought out Powell as a mentor as his career began to flourish in the 1970s.

Dancing in *The Red Shoes*

The Red Shoes premiered the same year as Bicycle Thieves, and provides an interesting contrast to the rise of Italian Neorealism. The Red Shoes is, after all, based on a fairy tale, updated to contemporary Europe. It is set among a ballet company trying to stage a new production quickly after losing one of its stars. Its main conflicts are between love and artistic ambition. The film is a highly polished studio production, employing expressionist design and lighting, highly choreographed staging, and dream (or at least dream-like) sequences. On the surface, this may sound like the complete opposite of a gritty Neorealist film like Bicycle Thieves.

But The Red Shoes shares the Neorealist spirit of truth and authenticity, because it is true to the life of the artist and to ballet. The shot selection: the camera movements, angles, lighting, and framing all serve to capture the essence of ballet. The fantasy and spectacle augment the characters' reality; we go with them into their minds and emotions just as we are invited into the Ricci's struggles and decisions in Bicycle Thieves, just through different means. Cinema abounds in ways to express truth about the world. While different movements may arise due to the conditions in specific locations and times, it's possible for these movements to resonate with audiences around the world and across time. After all, both Bicycle Thieves and The Red Shoes were internationally acclaimed and even won Oscars the same year. And both continue to appear on lists of the greatest films of all time, with The Red Shoes appearing at #67 in the 2022 Sight and Sound Critics Poll, alongside Bicycle Thieves at #41.

What to Watch For

  • Costumes, set design, makeup, camera angles, lighting, and of course color -- all of it working together in one of the most beautiful and visually striking films ever made. You'll see echoes of German Expressionism here as the film shifts back and forth between the characters' real lives and fantasies or dreams.

  • Powell is one of the greats in terms of shot composition and choreography. Pay attention to shot selection, the duration of takes, and the movement and rearrangement of the frame within shots. What does this accomplish?

  • We hear the fairy tale recounted by one of the characters, before seeing it play out in the film. Have you seen this “story within the story” technique used in other films?

Read More About The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes from Roger Ebert's Great Movies

Dancing for your Life essay in the Criterion edition of the film

Is The Red Shoes a Film Noir? essay in the Criterion edition of the film

Costumes and Color in The Red Shoes by Ada Pîrvu, Classiq journal

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