“Why Do You Want to Live?” — The Red Shoes

Each of the six films director Michael Powell and producer Emeric Pressburger made between 1943 and 1948 are landmarks of British cinema, for their boundary-pushing inventiveness and their stylistic flare. None is more acclaimed or beloved than The Red Shoes, the 2009 restoration of which is now available on Blu-ray. The film, notable for its illustration of the adage that great art is worth dying for, is a revered by filmmakers, cinephiles and the public alike the world over.

The basis of the film’s story-within-a-story (which is, in turn, a parable for the film proper) is a folktale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells of a girl who goes to a party wearing a pair of crimson slippers which she tricked her adoptive mother into buying for her. She starts to dance, and the shoes take over: she can’t stop, and she can’t take them off. As with many traditional fairytales—and with Andersen’s tales in particular—the story has a rather gruesome ending: she finds an executioner who she asks to chop off her feet because otherwise the non-stop dancing would kill her. In the film, the girl is Vicky Page, an unknown young ballerina, played by Moira Shearer in her first film role.

At a ballet after-party arranged by her aunt as a surreptitious audition, she meets Boris Lermontov, the fiery, mercurial impresario of his eponymous ballet company. Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, was the inspiration for Lermontov, and he’s played in the film by Anton Walbrook, an Austrian actor who had previously worked with Powell and Pressburger on 1946’s war film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks Vicky. She answers his question with another question: “Why do you want to live?” “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but… I must,” he replies. “That’s my answer too,” says Vicky.

After seeing her in a matinée performance of Swan Lake at the Mercury Theatre, Lermontov asks Vicky to come to Covent Garden and audition for him properly. A young composer, Julian Craster, after some forceful convincing, also befriends Lermontov and is asked by him to help coach the ballet’s orchestra. Craster—played by Marius Goring, another actor made famous from a previous Powell-Pressburger film—is eventually asked by Lermontov to re-score a ballet he’d like to put on in his company’s new home of Monte Carlo: a loose adaptation of Andersen’s fairytale. Over time, Vicky, who is cast in the leading role, falls for Craster—and he for her—and, paralleling the story of the ballet in which she will perform, she is forced to choose between love and sacrificing herself to (and for) her art.

Powell’s script was originally written more than ten years before it was filmed, as a vehicle for the future wife of the Hungarian-born British film director Alexander Korda—the actress Merle Oberon. After finishing work on Black Narcissus, Powell bought the script back from Korda and rewrote the lead part for Moira Shearer, a young dancer he knew also had acting abilities. Shearer was not the only dancer the filmmakers cast: they also employed ballet stars form the corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet, as well as the Russian choreographer Léonide Massine—who was principal dancer and choreographer of the Ballets Russes—in the role of the company’s choreographer. (Massine would, in 1951, go on to star in The Tales of Hoffman, Powell and Pressburger’s second film with Shearer, this time an opera adaptation of a work by Jacques Offenbach.) The Australian dancer Robert Helpmann and French prima ballerina cum actress Ludmilla Tchérina also have roles in the film.

The filmmakers were able to shoot at a number of locations that would probably not be accessible today—they made use of the real Covent Garden, and travelled to Monte Carlo in addition to shooting at Pinewood Studios. Outside excerpts from Tchaikovsky, and selections from Rossini and Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque and Léo Delibes’ Coppélia and Sylvia, the film’s music is composed by Brian Easdale; his music for the ballet within the film—particularly the main piece, the “Dance of the Red Shoes”—is one of the film’s highlights.

The film is, as Goring has remarked, half reality, and half fairytale. Its centrepiece is the maiden performance of the titular ballet, an extravagant 15-minute sequence that takes the viewer under the proscenium arch and inside the performance space, at its height transcending the production and slipping into Vicky’s nightmarish subconscious experience, with appropriately surrealist backdrops. The sequence took six weeks to shoot, employed over 50 of the Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet, and utilised specially-manufactured spotlights and other technical equipment to attain shots and sequences that had never been tried before. Anything CGI can do, this film has done better.

The sequence was extensively storyboarded: Hein Heckroth, a German émigré painter and art director who had worked with Powell and Pressburger on A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus, made more than two hundred oil sketches, laid them out in order, and filmed them according to the timing and direction he wanted. Although it probably wasn’t known by this name, Heckroth had created one of the earliest ‘animatics’—animated storyboards which help the director, cinematographer and other crew prepare lighting, camera manoeuvres and other technical aspects ahead of time in order to ease the filming process and begin circulating ideas and ironing out problems before shooting begins.

Heckroth’s animatic was of particular benefit to the film’s cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, who was the first cameraman to shoot a Technicolor film in Britain: 1937’s Wings of the Morning. Cardiff had worked on a number of public information films during the war, and headed the second unit on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—work that so impressed Powell and Pressburger that they hired him for cinematography duties on A Matter of Life and Death. By the time The Red Shoes came around, Cardiff was unquestionably the leading colour cinematographer in Britain, and one of the best three-strip Technicolor cinematographers ever. The zip-pans, pirouettes and other camera manoeuvres he employs in the matinée scene where Vicky first performs for Lermontov—the point at which the film leaves the audience’s point-of-view and begins to explore the subjective viewpoint of the dancer/s—have been mimicked numerous times since, most notably by Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull, and, most recently and most bluntly, by Darren Aronofsky in Black Swan.

Cardiff shot a number of films over the decades after his work with Powell and Pressburger, including War and Peace and John Huston’s The African Queen. He also made a foray into direction, helming 11 films between 1958 and 1973, though none of them was particularly well-received. Funnily, the last film he would lens, before switching tracks into television, would be 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Cardiff’s work on The Red Shoes is easily the film’s greatest strength, which the recent restoration of the film by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation (which was screened at last year’s NZIFF) brings out magnificently: the glorious colour threatens to bound out of the frame throughout, and the glint and gleam in the actors’ eyes (thanks mostly to Cardiff’s manipulation of the Technicolor process itself) lends an eerie and at times dark atmosphere to this “folktale about art,” as Michael Powell described it. This, the ur-ballet-psychodrama, is a cinematic treasure made even richer by the wonders of modern restoration.

The Red Shoes is now available on Bluray from Magna Home Entertainment. The local disc is basically a trimmed-down version of Criterion’s release—i.e., without some of the supplementary video features and without the audio commentary (which, in any case, is presumably just the didactic, dry faux-roundtable discussion carried across wholesale from the company’s first Laserdisc release) and accompanying essay (“Dancing for Your Life”) by David Ehrenstein, which you can read online anyway.