Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.
—The Red Shoes
The standard-issue advice given by artists to starry-eyed youngsters goes something like this: if you can do anything else and be happy, do it. Those who burn for a life in the arts have little choice but to submit to the indignities of harsh spotlights (from auditions to criticism) and the pitfalls of emotionally taxing, typically cutthroat professions; as compensation, artists reach audiences through self-expression and, perhaps, leave a legacy to outlast themselves. This agony and ecstasy (and yearning and despair) are the stuff of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 film The Red Shoes, a sublime melodrama set in the shared world of music and dance that is the ballet.
Loosely based on the famed Ballets Russes, The Red Shoes' Ballet Lermontov is a constant whirlwind of activity and change. Impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is the seemingly cool-headed eye of the storm, his status reinforced by his outward quiet confidence. Lermontov sizes up young talents and invites them to sink or swim in his company: Powell and Pressburger's script elegantly balances explorations of the music and dance sides of the equation through the stories of aspiring composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and hopeful ballerina Victoria "Vicky" Page (Moira Shearer), both of whom are invited into star-making positions by Lermontov. They also become points in an emotional triangle with Lermontov, whose neurotic repression of feeling leads to explosions that rock the company. One ballerina opines of the impresario, "He has no heart, that man," but the truth is that he has a big one and fears losing control to it.
The other major aspect of the narrative of The Red Shoes is its folding in of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of the same name, adapted into a ballet by Craster and choreographer Grisha Ljubov (the great Léonide Massine, former star of the Ballets Russes). The still astonishing expressionistic dance sequence that stands as a performance of the Ballet Lermontov's "The Red Shoes" also reveals Vicky's dizzied subjective mindset in coping with the struggle for her soul between Lermontov, Craster and herself. In objective terms, the ballet is rapturous, as a feast of theatrical lighting and Technicolor photography (shot by the brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff), the choreography of Robert Helpmann, the music of Brian Easdale and the montage of editor Reginald Mills. It's also the culmination of Powell and Pressburger's thematic incisiveness in using the Andersen tale to represent the characters' passions and reckless submission to a consumptive pursuit.
Walbrook is positively brilliant in conveying Lermontov's tenuous control and undercurrent of emotional anguish. Though too old for his role, Goring works hard to make us forget that inconvenience by focusing instead on Craster's artistic drive, and he cuts nearly as elegant a figure as Walbrook. Real-life dancer Shearer (who reteamed with Powell on Peeping Tom) forcefully conveys Vicky's journey from excitement to dread. Like the filmmakers, she keenly understands how the greatest talents often suffer the greatest exploitation and pressure but lack the will to escape: The Red Shoes paints Vicky as a performer, a woman, a soul held captive by an employer, a composer, and her own passion, represented by those magical, inescapable red shoes. "The red shoes are never tired," explains Lermontov. "Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on."
The much-heralded 2009 4K digital restoration of The Red Shoes finally makes it to home video, and the Criterion Collection's got it. Criterion first released this title to DVD in 1999 and laserdisc in 1994, but of course, it's never looked or sounded better than it does in the new Blu-ray special edition (mirrored in a reissued DVD). Aside from a movie theater, the best way to see The Red Shoes is definitely Blu-ray, with its knack for vibrant color (a hallmark of this Technicolor classic) and texture. Contrast and detail are exceptional, and nothing detracts from a film-like presentation; this one's a beaut. The film's sound has also been nicely cleaned up, and presented in an LPCM Mono track that's clean, clear, and faithful.
Remarkably (given the outstanding DVD and laserdisc packages), the Blu-ray edition of The Red Shoes includes some new bonus features to complement the previously released extras (all of which return).
The fascinating audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie, featuring interviews with stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese makes a return appearance, with film-historical context, behind-the-scenes recollections and thematic musings about the film.
An additional audio track presents "The Red Shoes Novel," audio excerpts of Powell and Pressburger's 1978 novelization, a 1994 Criterion exclusive recorded by Jeremy Irons.
There's a new "Restoration Demonstration" (4:17, HD) hosted by Red Shoes superfan Scorsese.
The 2000 doc "Profile of The Red Shoes" (25:30, HD) "features interviews with film historian Ian Christie, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, camera operator Chris Challis, and family members of the film's original production team."
"Thelma Schoonmaker Powell" (14:41, HD) is an interview with Michael Powell's widow (and Scorsese's Oscar-winning film editor) recorded at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival on the occasion of the unveiling of the restoration.
A Stills Gallery (HD) is divided into the sections "Cast and Crew," "Filming in London," "Filming in Paris," "Filming in Monte Carlo," "Deleted Scenes," and "Production and Costume Designs," and there's also a gallery of Scorsese's Memorabilia (HD).
The multi-angle "The Red Shoes Sketches" (15:57, HD) is an animated film, using production designer Hein Heckroth's original color storyboards and set to Brian Easdale's score, that served as a blueprint for the ballet sequence (available as an alternate angle). There's also an option to play the film with audio of Irons reading the original Andersen fairy tale "The Red Shoes."
Lastly, there's the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:30, HD) and a 24-page color booklet including an essay by film critic David Ehrenstein and an accounting of the restoration by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt.
It would be a mistake not to include this deathless classic in your cinema library, especially in glorious Blu-ray.
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