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The Red Shoes
A region 2 DVD review from the Powell & Pressburger Collection by Camus

Ballet? Ballet? You have got to be kidding. Yeah, yeah. My mother was constantly reminding me that ballet dancers were fitter than I was, that they trained harder than any other professional in any other job. I just shrugged off the girly stuff. OK, mum. Fine. I was 16 being sucked under by the whirlpool of raging hormones. It was the year of Star Wars and it still hadn't hit these shores. I had the Meko single, the pop version of the Williams main theme and Cantina band and there was nothing in my life except for a huge chasm of anticipation... And then on BBC 2 that year, a film was to be televised about ballet. Count me out. Shame on me (I can retrospectively be shamed). Before you could say 'pas de deux', I was plonked in front of the TV with a warning that if I could not regale a girl friend with the plot the next day, she would cease to be my friend. Ain't love grand? Hands on hips, achingly pretty head craned to one side in a sort of physical question mark, I was suitably challenged. I watched. The next day I started to babble about the plot, the colour (oh, the colour), the dancing, the sheer extraordinary surreality of it (most 16 year olds didn't, to my knowledge, have a definition of the word 'surreal' cellotaped to their wardrobe) and above all the superlative editing that slowly led me to some kind of delayed epiphany. The way the pictures are put together is where the power resides. This idea has done more for my career than any other and it was The Red Shoes that led me to it.

It strikes me as being notable that I have had more revelations about cinema in the presence of the work of Mr. Powell and Mr. Pressburger than any other film-makers. They opened my eyes to what cinema was capable. As Emeric Pressburger said to his partner, quoted in A.L. Kennedy's excellent BFI Classic of P & P's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from Pressburger's biography The Life and Death of A Screenwriter by Kevin Macdonald:

"How many times have I told you that a film is not words… It is thoughts and feelings, surprises, suspense, accident."

By the time the master Lermontov had uttered the question "Why do you want to dance?" to Vicky Page (soon to be the dancer in the titular red shoes) I was entranced. Her answer "Why do you want to live?" struck a chord so deep I felt like my stomach was having a root canal. Why did I want to make films? The same answer. Ambition was a compelling master and it seemed as if P & P had articulated my deepest goals in a movie about a ballerina! Those crafty bastards!

The story of The Red Shoes is easy to summarize – famed ballet maestro Lermontov finds talented ballerina Vicky Page, a girl who has the talent to go right to the top. Her launch pad (the ballet of The Red Shoes) thrusts her into the public's adoring gaze but love barges in, in the shape of Red Shoes' composer Eliott Craster. Love verses a desire or ambition to be the greatest… It can only and does end in tears. But before the tears, there are two hours of extraordinary film making and if there is a central performance that wraps the movie around itself, it's Anton Walbrook's.

Walbrook plays the great Boris Lermontov, the powerful ballet impresario. Here is a man driven by the need to find the zenith of physical grace. He finds those who aim high and stay aloft but then become adherents of their own publicity, divas (goddesses) thrust into Asgard by force of their own self belief. Even this can do nothing against the brutal march of time. Lermontov is after someone fresh, someone who can promise him the stars as he can promise to make them one. But Vicky Page is not a simple celeb aching to be adored and recognised the world over. She is a dancer, a talented and dedicated dancer who works hard for her fame. Lermontov's players (ranging from Robert Helpmann, the leading dancer of his day to Leonide Massine, the Russian ballet dancer) all form a tight knit and tremendously loyal company who support each other and help cement Lermontov's starry reputation. Here is a Svengali, more Sven Goran E., a manager of extreme talent, an organiser of human resources in the name of art. Lermontov wants to get 'there', the plateau upon which sit the greats, those who have pushed their art to another level. The Red Shoes never presents Lermontov as a talent in and of himself (except perhaps for having the talent to maintain the illusion of great sophistication and aloofness) but does illuminate him starkly by giving him one terrible weakness – he falls in love and utterly denies it within himself and harshly criticises it in others. He may successfully fool himself and others in his erotic ankle caress of the statue of a ballerina's toe balanced foot – he's in it for the art! But we know better.

There are several dazzling technical tricks in this sumptuous treat. I first remember being forced to acknowledge the editor (or rather what the director had planned to edit in a certain way, let's not deify editors too much, heaven forbid) while watching a small ballet company perform. Vicky Page steps out and in stunning pirouettes, each accompanied by a POV (stop and think). The Red Shoes was shot in Technicolor, requiring cameras the size of freezers. How did they get the pirouette POV? For once, it may be true that it was done with mirrors.

One of the most haunting images in a film full of such sights, is Vicky imploring her husband to take off the red shoes, the potent symbol of being controlled. Her mad dash to get away from the two men who represent her specific dilemma is presented with extraordinary speed and vital shots go by in frames. Perhaps this was a deliberate ploy on P & P's behalf. One never really knows if Vicky Page commits suicide or falls as she's running headlong towards the only fate she has to submit to.

The Red Shoes is one of those intensely passionate movies that entices future ballerinas to squeeze into the tutu. It's movies like this that prise open the door so we can begin to recognise that we can be so much more than the sum of our body parts. We can dance. We can all dance.

One trivial aside: in Monte Carlo, where the climax takes place, there is a scene between Craster and Page and in the background I could easily be convinced that standing just outside on the balcony was the demon Pazazou from The Exorcist.

sound and vision

The mono sound (quite important in a ballet movie) is again faithfully served by this DVD. No noticeable hiss and there is clarity throughout.

This is one particular movie that can be seriously hurt by a bad print. But this one looks pretty damn fine. Framed 4:3, it looks good enough to eat (a phrase which I'd love to introduce into the technical specs lexicon). It's just that you notice all the colours because done well, Technicolor is extraordinary, and P & P were very explicit about colour as the flowers and fruit scattered all over the film testify. They just can't resist the odd splash here and there and the DVD faithfully recreates the richness of the colour. On the down side, there is still that tiny amount of strobing, especially evident in the scene when Lermontov offers Craster a job. It doesn't by any means detract from the enjoyment of the viewing but I believe it has to be a telecine issue (essentially a video camera rammed down the throat of a film projector). For a print to become a DVD, it has to be scanned and that means projection. It's the only aspect of the process that would cause this odd effect. Let's add "that I know of…"

Side Note: In direct comparison with the Criterion Collection DVD of The Red Shoes, the HMV box set release acquits itself admirably. On the PAL system, the NTSC Criterion discs have a distinct judder on some camera movement but unfortunately this is unavoidable technically speaking.

extra features

A Profile of the Red Shoes (23'53")
Many critics and surviving relatives delightedly give their accounts of this landmark film. If you love the movie, this will fascinate.

The Ballet Of The Red Shoes – Featurette 'Planning The Ballet' (15'21")
Using Hein Heckroth's sketches, the ballet is played out like storyboard animatics. The attention paid to Heckroth's sketches during the actual shoot is mind boggling. There is a lot of strobing on the lighter sections of this extra (brightness levels quivering). There is very noticeable hiss on the quieter passages.

Theatrical Trailer (2'21")
Proving nothing has changed too much… The trailer doesn't even hint at what an incredibly 'whole' film The Red Shoes is. It just regurgitates what was seen to sell back in the 40s. My favourite part is the one in which it describes Moira Shearer as "A Star of Bewitching Loveliness"! As 40s as it gets. Otherwise The Red Shoes has hardly aged a day.

Behind The Scenes Gallery
Revealing production stills – just check out the size of that fecking camera blimp. "Want a tracking shot guv'?" They'd need a football team to move that thing.

In-Depth Biographies
See earlier piece on AMOLAD.

The Red Shoes
The Powell and Pressburger Collection

UK 1948 .

153 mins

directors .
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
starring .
Anton Walbrook
Marius Goring
Moira Shearer
Robert Helpman
Leonide Massine

DVD details
region 2 .
sound .
Dolby mono 1.0
languages .
subtitles .
English for the hard of hearing
A profile of The Red Shoes featurette
Planning the Ballet featurette
Behind-the-scenes gallery

distributor .
review posted
18 September 2005

The Powell & Pressburger Collection
A Matter of Life and Death
The Red Shoes
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
I Know Where I'm Going
A Canterbury Tale
They're a Weird Mob
49th Parallel
Battle of the River Plate
Ill Met By Moonlight

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