The Red Shoes begins with the spectacle of a horde of lusty young music and dance students bashing on a theatre door and racing furiously up flights of stairs to secure the front row balcony seats forty-five minutes before the start of a ballet performance. This goofy, exciting introduction is a cross between the storming of the Winter Palace in Eisenstein's October (1928) and the delirium of the teenagers watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in Robert Zemeckis' I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978).
Expressionist Russian montage meets American teen musical: that kind of hybrid is typical of the great British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
In my own wanderings as a cinephile, I deliberately avoided seeing The Red Shoes for a long time. I love Powell-Pressburger classics like Black Narcissus (1946) and Peeping Tom (1960). I think I always assumed that The Red Shoes, a film so beloved by people of several generations, must be the Powell-Pressburger film for those who don't otherwise like Powell-Pressburger films – a classy, High Culture film for people who sneer at popular cinema. In fact, as I was happy to discover when I finally watched it, the enduring popularity of The Red Shoes bodes well for the taste of its audience.
Although The Red Shoes is a film about ballet and classical music, it is far closer in spirit to the Hollywood musical. Film musicals in general have a rich and remarkable history. This film is recognisably in the family tree of the backstage musical. Another mark of its hybridity is the way it falls, both historically and aesthetically, between Hollywood backstage musicals of the '30s directed by Busby Berkeley and Lloyd Bacon (like 42nd Street ), and Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach (1952) or French Cancan (1955).
Like in the American films, there is the toil of rehearsing and touring, the figure of the cruel but passionate producer/director (Anton Walbrook as Lermontov), the excitement of the opening night. Like in Renoir, there is the love of cinematic artifice – painted sets, smoke machines, extravagantly gaudy colour symbolism, giddy switchings of point-of-view. And like in the Hollywood musical extravaganzas Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953), there is a climactic set piece – the Red Shoes ballet – which mirrors the whole film, and begins on a stage only to launch into a fantastically unreal cinematic space of superimpositions, coloured filters, sets that extend to infinity and shock editing inserts. This justly classic sequence evokes another unlikely but magical meeting: Busby Berkeley meets Cocteau, or maybe even Kenneth Anger.
It's the truly experimental side of Powell and Pressburger's work – and their use of techniques that were extraordinarily farsighted and modern for their time – that makes their films endure. It's this side that continues to inspire filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. In Scorsese's New York, New York (1977), if memory serves me correctly, Robert De Niro tries to check himself and Liza Minnelli into a hotel using the name of Michael Powell. This is not merely a cute joke – in its story of two artists trying to hold onto a turbulent marriage, New York, New York is a brilliant transposition of the situation of dancer Vicki (Moira Shearer) and composer Julian (Marius Goring) in The Red Shoes.
This connection points up the fact that Powell and Pressburger's film is not only a musical, but also a melodrama. The characterisation in their films is always floridly melodramatic. The eternal triangle of The Red Shoes – Lermontov, Vicky and Julian – follows the logic of a dream: the characters form now one configuration, now another, tossed about by passion, repression, duplicity and the impossible yearning for an art (dance or music) which is immortal, beyond the mere vagaries of love, or life itself. I won't give away the ending for anyone who has yet to see it, but suffice to say, the final, surprising reprise of the Red Shoes ballet is one of the most disquieting pay-offs to any film melodrama.
Perhaps the triumph of The Red Shoes can best be evoked with the famous words of film director Jean-Luc Godard: "The musical is the idealisation of cinema." When Godard wrote these words in the '50s, he was thinking of the films of Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli. Few serious critics at that time would even have heard of Michael Powell or Emeric Pressburger. In a fascinating trick of history, their great, fundamental contribution to the seventh art (especially Powell's) was really only discovered and appreciated after they had stopped making films, from the mid-1970s onwards. Every new film festival, every special event re-release, every late-night television unveiling, brings us a new gem by Powell and Pressburger, or Powell on his own. The good news for film lovers seems to be that the discovery of Michael Powell can never end.
MORE Powell & Pressburger: A Canterbury Tale
© Adrian Martin January 1996