You can dance if you want to, if you leave your friends behind.
The Film: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s metacinematic rendition of the 19th century fairy tale
The Potable: One bottle of 2015 Marqués de Caceres Rioja Rosé
My junior year of college, looking to reinvent myself, I made a drastic purchase. Not white, not black, but bright red Chuck Taylors. Really eye catching footwear. One year prior I bought a pair of white leather loafers – once described by a third party as “kickass” – so I guess it wasn’t exactly a new strategy. All of which is to say that I understand the power of a really choice pair of kicks.
In terms of plot and theme, The Red Shoes shares much in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Moira Shearer stars as a wannabe dancer who makes some questionable, melodramatic life choices. Both films utilize similar self-referential narrative techniques, and, ultimately, both films are about obsession. That unrelenting desire to cut a rug, to cha cha the Charleston, to conga the rhumba. To, unabashedly, ballet.
But The Red Shoes is as much an ode to technicolor as it is to dance. Released in 1948, at a time when cinema was still largely black and white, Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece likely gave its early audiences the same shock as the first hot dog to be topped with cranberry sauce. Vibrant, original, and impossible to watch or eat just once. Martin Scorsese regards it as one of the most beautiful color films ever made, and this rich palette fills every frame and emotion.
The principal emotion here is jealousy. Finally accepted to a top shelf ballet company in the South of France, Moira’s new boss tells her right up front – you can love the dance or you can love a man; you cannot love both. Yeah yeah yeah, she says, just give me the shoes, and within the year she’s skinny dipping with the company conductor in the moonlit waves of the Mediterranean. What could the bossman expect? We’ve all been nude in the ocean. But anyway he doesn’t take it well.
Why can’t she just do both? It’s never entirely clear. One presumes that love, the all-consuming passion, has a detritus effect on the feet. That a great dancer cannot depend upon arch support while preoccupied with “the one.” The heart wants what it wants, and that may not always be in the best interests of podiatry, though as someone who’s worn Chuck Taylor’s for the past nine years, I can say that poor arch support may be more related to the shoe.
I spent the first half of the movie thinking that this tyrannical producer was overstepping his bounds. I rolled my eyes and repeatedly muttered “Stand up for yourself, Moira” through sips of rosé. But then, my God, you see the production. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” performed in a way you’ve never seen before. The sets, the costumes, and of course, the steps. At one point she dances with an anthropomorphized newspaper, spinning pirouettes with a windblown copy of the New York Post. My drunken criticisms do not technically extend to theater, but I dare say Miss Shearer moves with the grace of a young Baryshnikov, the only dancer I know by name. These details come together to create a surprisingly eerie and surreal rendition of the fairy tale. Moira, I’m sorry, but your boss knows what he’s doing; you can never have a love.
The film has its flaws. As expected, many of these characters are insufferable; there are ascots and some very annoying pronunciations of the word “amateur.” The depiction of the South of France is idyllic, but I wonder if the location scouts could have chosen a few less “touristy” spots for the dinner scenes. Someplace Anthony Bourdain might have liked.
The lighting, though bold – can I say this? – it may be too bold.
“I do not try to dance better than anyone else,” Baryshnikov once said. “I only try to dance better than myself.” If Moira shares that drive, then her choice is a difficult one. We’ve all made sacrifices for the ones we love. I, for example, eat far fewer 7/11 burritos than I once did. But to abandon your passions, to abandon your childhood dreams of life on the stage? To surrender the red shoes?
I fell asleep before the end, but I’m sure she’ll work it out.
Verdict: one to tango