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Dance, you fool!

April 15, 2006

I saw The Red Shoes last night. It’s one of those movies that movie buffs – scotch that, cineastes – rave about, and almost no one’s seen, like Satyajit Ray’s films (I’m 0-for-37). The Red Shoes has a number of marks going against it: it’s British, it has no recognizable stars and – wait for it – it’s about ballet.

I have nothing against ballet, I guess, but the only ballet I’ve ever been to was The Nutcracker when I was eight years old, and I would die happily if I never went to the ballet again. Its charms are simply inaccessible to me.

So I was surprised how much I enjoyed The Red Shoes. The first half or so has the familiar feel of well-made ‘40s and ‘50s films – efficient dialogue, well-defined action, great character actors. The best part is the leader of the ballet troupe, Boris Lermontov, played by Anton Walbrook, who’s a cross between Vincent Price and Kevin Kline playing Vincent Price. Sample exchange:

Lermontov: How would you define ballet, Lady Neston?

Lady Neston: Well, one might call it the poetry of motion perhaps, or…

Lermontov: One might. But for me it is a great deal more. For me it is a religion. And one doesn’t really care to see one’s religion practiced in an atmosphere… (meaningful pause) such as this.

(Cue diabolical laugh and twirl of the mustache. OK, I added the laugh part. But Lermontov does have a mustache that can best be described as “villainous.”)

As fun as Lermontov is – and he’s a lot of fun, especially when he wears a kimono and women’s sunglasses – the first part of the movie is fairly standard backstage drama: young aspiring dancers and musicians climb the ladder of success in the backstabbing, glamorous, exhausting, very gay world of professional ballet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Vincent Price + (Kevin Kline / Vincent Price) = Anton-Walbrook.jpg?

But the movie goes from moderately interesting to captivating when Lermontov’s troupe stages the ballet of the movie’s title. That’s surprising for reasons beyond the fact that I actually enjoyed watching ballet.

Typically, watching any kind of stage production recreated on film is an exasperating affair. Film emphasizes everything that is artificial about theater – exaggerated gestures, shouted line readings, the flimsiness of sets – without demonstrating what makes theater powerful: its physical immediacy, the companionship of the crowd, the power viewers have once they suspend their disbelief. That power allows us to see things that are not there: a helicopter, for example, when all we see or hear is canned rotor noise and an actor pointing to the rafters (unless you’re watching an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, in which case you actually get a helicopter, along with the sad spectacle of a stage musical that wishes it were a movie).

But directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger get around this problem, ingeniously, not by accepting the limitations of theater, but by accepting the limitations of film. They accept that film is terribly literal-minded, and leaves no room for the viewer to imagine what is not there. So what do they do? They film the ballet as it might be seen in the imagination of a spellbound viewer. Characters appear and disappear, sets miraculously transform, newspapers dance, turn into people and back into newspapers again. We get close-ups of faces, hands, feet. In its climax, we see the crowd as the lead dancer, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), might envision them: a rumbling wave crashing on a rocky shore. It’s all quite surreal, and quite wonderful. It’s like the dream sequences in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind: so bizarre and visually rich that it needs to be watched multiple times to enjoy – and understand – fully.

Once The Red Shoes is staged, the movie becomes more engaging, especially when Lermontov punches a mirror in anger. It also becomes quite thematically interesting, as it explores the question of whether happy people can create good art. On one side are Page and Julian Craster, a talented young composer (Marius Goring), who fall in love and seek to continue working for the ballet; on the other is Lermontov, who believes that “the doubtful comforts of human love” cannot co-exist with the highest level of artistic expression. The nice thing is that we’re never sure who’s right. As much as Lermontov is portrayed as the authority on, well, everything, we’re never certain if his disgust at Craster’s and Page’s relationship is because it makes shitty art, or because he’s simply jealous. Not of either them, really, but of normal people in general, who can find fulfillment in activities other than art. And who don’t require personal misery as the engine for ambition.

The movie doesn’t really answer its central question, ending with a nonsensical cop-out that looks suspiciously like a Hollywood-ized happy ending (although it’s not, because the film was entirely British-made). Page is driven mad by the conflict between love and art and leaps to her death in the film’s penultimate scene, although she doesn’t actually die; in fact, she survives, bloodily, cradled in Craster’s arms. There’s the suggestion – which is not made explicitly enough – that she survived but her legs are crippled, meaning she can now choose love without conflict because her dance career is over. But in a medium as literal-minded as film, a mere suggestion is not enough.

The movie would have been better-served by ending about a minute earlier, when Craster and Lermontov confront Page in her dressing room minutes before opening night and demand that she choose love or art. In the movie, Page, through tears, chooses art, and Craster leaves, while Lermontov grabs her wrist and tells her to get ready to go on stage. The camera closes in on Page’s overly-made up, kabuki-like face, and there’s a look of horror. Then it should have faded to black. It would have been wonderfully ironic: a young artist coming to the horrible realization that greatness and misery often go hand in hand.

If that’s too uncomfortably close to the sentimental American glorification of romantic love, then Powell and Pressburger should at least have had the balls to kill Page. It would have more elegantly demonstrated the impossibility of the art-life conflict, and shown that the co-existence of creation and procreation requires some sort of compromise.

Or better, perhaps, to have a mock-happy ending, with Craster accepting Page’s choice of art and joining the audience for the opening night. Once on stage, Page would mess up a move or two, but not care, because her love is in the audience. Lermontov, then, would be the one wearing a look of horror, and we wouldn’t know if it’s because the art has been ruined, his jealousy is un-satiated or simply because he’s an absolutist who can’t stomach compromise.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    April 23, 2006 2:31 pm

    nice review, almost (but not quite) convinvcing enough to actually see it. by the way, i saw at least one ray film in college. not surprisingly i was thorougly bored by it

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