Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes” (1948) aspires to the impersonal inaccesssibility of high art. Whether the film succeeds in its ambitions remains, I think, controversial. The film is so thoroughly designed and stylized that it has always seemed to me somewhat airless and emotionally impenetrable, a great classical work of art that occupies a pinnacle that mere mortals can not ascend. ”The Red Shoes” is operatic, but without the emotional force carried by great music. (Perversely, the film relies upon a score comprised mostly of music composed for the movie -- this music is undistinguished and forgettable, mostly domesticated variants on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka”, but without the Russian’s ferocity and rhythmic boldness. When we see a scene staged to great music -- for instance, part of “Swan Lake”, the movie achieves emotional resonance that it lacks otherwise.) For many viewers, the picture will feel remote and curiously dispassionate because the art form celebrated in the film is ballet and the aesthetics of ballet are unfamiliar to most people. Oddly enough, the least abstract of all arts, dance, somehow seems highly rarefied and abstruse, even elitist, in ballet -- the genre requires “muscle memory,” I think to appreciate: that is, ideally you must have danced ballet to appreciate ballet and, for better or worse, most modern Americans don’t have this experience. Powell compensates for the distance that the ballet setting enforces between the film’s subject and its audience by employing the full panoply of movie magic to impress on the audience the film’s themes and story -- there are whip pans, elaborate superimpositions, slow-motion effects, and gorgeously complex expressionistic lighting. The editing compresses the action, but in a curious way that sometimes seems to paralyze the story, freezing it in prismatically interlocking tableaux that, while furiously in motion, often don’t seem to move at all. Many individual shots are among the most beautiful ever captured on film and Powell is unafraid to insert giant close-ups as punctuation to the action -- huge silent movie style portraits exquisitely lit, with the actors glaring directly into the camera, wide-eyed and fiercely emotional. Roughly speaking, the film divides into three panels. In the first part of the movie, we are introduced to the prima ballerina, Victoria Page, a young woman of wealth and refinement, who wants to be a great dancer. The film’s rather schematic triangle is established: Victoria Page is the protégé of Lermontov, a ballet impresario, played by Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is the film’s Satan, the figure that tempts the ballerina to abandon ordinary life for the demanding, and, ultimately, fatal discipline of dance. Walbrook doesn’t feel like a leading man and this is to his credit -- he’s simply too strange, a figure too allegorical to fit in with the ordinary fabric of human life. In the penultimate scene, when he urges the ballerina to desert her husband for his ballet, he is pale, bloodless, an image of death itself, debonair, suave, and lethal -- “life,” he proclaims, “is so insignificant,”at least compared with great art and as Walbrook pronounces those words, we are ready to suspend our disbelief and agree with him. The third corner of the triangle is a young composer. He looks a bit like Benjamin Britten with gunfighter-eyes of the most startling blue -- in the final scene, the robin’s egg blue of his eyes is used to determine costume and décor, for instance, the ballerina’s blue scarf. The young man has swept back hair after the fashion of German silent film heroes -- he looks a bit like the hero in “Metropolis” or the young “Siegfried” in “The Nibelungen”. (And, indeed, Fritz Lang’s staging of melodramatic confrontations in his silent films -- huge close-ups looming over symbolic landscapes, sudden histrionic gestures that seem too large for figures making them -- is evident in the climactic sequence pitting the two men against one another with the doomed ballerina as their prize.) The composer, the author of the ballet “The Red Shoes”, falls in love with the ballerina -- this love affair, which results in a marriage, is presented in an efficient shorthand, a couple cursory shots, and, certainly, not the subject of the film. We don’t see the wedding between the composer and the ballerina and, after they are married, Powell stages scenes with the husband and wife lying apart in separate beds -- there is no doubt that the film’s sympathies (and its passion) lie with the Mephistophelean impresario, Walbrook’s obsessed Lermontov, the man who believes that ordinary life must be sacrificed on the altar of great art. The deck is stacked in favor of art: Walbrook is more fascinating and compelling on screen than the handsome, and stiff, composer hero: love is weighed in the balance with art and loses -- it is a far finer thing to create a majestic work of art than to be married and in love and the film’s delirious mise-en-scene, its exhaustion of all of the resources of film art drives this message home with a vengeance. The second panel in the movie is an extended dance sequence, the performance of the “Red Shoes” ballet which presents the plot conflict in an allegorical form, art as symbolized by the red shoes and the demonic cobbler who has made them (self-evidently an image of Lermontov) versus ordinary life. The dance sequences are fantastically beautiful, poised against spectacular sets and filmed with great swooping motions of the camera. The notion that we are watching a performance in a Monte Carlo theater is abandoned after a few minutes and for ten minutes or so we are immersed in an expressionistic fantasmagoria -- it’s the same effect used in great American musicals like “The Band Wagon” and “Singing in the Rain” with the same emotional impact: we have a film within a film that is like a fever dream, a surreal cascade of images staged in an endlessly complex and deep space opening into an infinity of lush, womb-like locations, a sequence that is simultaneously completely closed off from reality and enormously expansive in its sweep and imaginative staging. The third part of the film seems a bit perfunctory -- it is the working-out of the conflict between life and great art, a delirium that would be more effective, I think, if the film were silent and if the dialogue were suppressed in favor of music. Like Anna Karenina, the ballerina plunges under a train -- and, as in the novel, there are harbingers of that climax presented as foreshadowing throughout the film. The problem with the movie’s last thirty minutes is that the conflict feels completely contrived. We don’t have any sense for why Lermontov thinks that being married with a husband is inimical to being a great dancer. Of course, Powell suggests that Lermontov is acting in bad faith, that it is really jealousy and sexual envy that drives him: he wants the woman for himself. But the greatness of the film lies in Anton Walbrook’s splendid and immensely stylized performance which renders this prosaic motivation implausible -- Lermontov, as played by Walbrook, is simply too pure, too cerebral, too completely committed to his art to succumb to mere lust. In fact, the character is imagined as entirely asexual, without any apparent desire except to achieve excellence in the ballets that he presents. But this aspect of the film undercuts the climax -- we can’t figure out why the prima ballerina can’t be married to the composer and still dance. Powell’s concept is that the woman is somehow the muse of both men and that their competition for her is sacred, an indication of their commitment to their art. But this gets confusing because Lermontov is not an artist but only a talented impresario. The composer makes the same demand on the heroine, namely that she be true to him only -- but, again, this doesn’t make any sense. Is it impossible for a man to compose music if his wife, to whom he is happily married, is engaged as a dancer on the stage in Monte Carlo? Why should this be a matter of life and death importance? It is a tribute to the film’s dream-like power that these cavils occur to us only after the movie is finished. When Lermontov and the composer make the ballerina choose between them we have a sense that this is overdetermined, unrealistic, and, even, emotionally untrue -- but the film is staged with such force and power and the imagery is so expressive that we are swept up by the emotions dramatized, even though, after the film is finished we are apt to feel a bit embarrassed by our assent to what is, after all, a completely fabricated and unreal conflict. One sequence in this film stands out as particularly effective in its fusion of plot, symbolism, and theme. The heroine is called to dine with Lermontov and she goes to her assignation wearing a gorgeous blue ballroom gown and a tiara, something like a cartoon princess in a Disney movie (she looks like Snow White). The camera shows the heroine traveling along the supernaturally beautiful coast of Monte Carlo and, then, arriving at a mountaintop castle. The castle is ruinous, reached by a huge marble stairway overgrown with weeds and vines. We hear operatic music somewhere on the heights above and the heroine climbs the weed-overgrown stairs which seem to rise up and up and up forever -- the scene combines the sinister and the fabulous in such a way as to yield an effect that is uncanny and well-nigh indescribable -- this is the beginning of the heroine’s seduction by Lermontov and the sequence takes place in an enchanted castle. It is a remarkable passage in the film,something that once seen you will never forget.

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