Special thanks to my buddy Vince Caro for his excellent contribution!
With the anticipated release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the somewhat unmarketable genre (at least in recent years) of the ‘ballet movie’ has been reinvigorated with high expectations. The last such movie I’d seen was The Turning Point (1977), an uneven melodrama which stayed within the subject’s borders: love triangles, competition between diva dancers, leaving the profession and the art’s physical toll on the dancer’s body. Seeing an aging Anne Bancroft as a nearly washed up ballerina sorta gave me the heebie jeebies (in a Betty Davis kinda way). That same year, Dario Argento literally conveyed that creepiness in full with Suspiria with some classic 70s gore.
But there is one ballet movie that transcends all others in terms of beauty, tragedy and intelligence but still reminding us of the dancer’s Faustian dedication to their art. The Red Shoes is derived from a Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, where a demon shoemaker gives a young girl a pair of magical red dancing shoes which forces her to dance against her will, and ultimately to her death.
In the film, aspiring dancer Vicky Page (the riveting Moira Shearer) is discovered by ruthless theater producer Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who casts her in a ballet rendition of the Red Shoes. She falls in love with the ballet’s composer Julian (Marius Goring). Lermontov, fueled by his jealousy of the two lovers, forces Vicky to choose between her love for Julian and her love for dance – with tragic results.
The film is shot beautifully in lush color and directed by famous collaborators Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, with magnificent and dreamlike dance sequences. [According to Wiki, to create a realistic feeling of a ballet company at work, and to be able to include a fifteen minute ballet as the high point of the film, they created their own ballet company using many dancers from Britain’s The Royal Ballet.] The film carefully carries us into a magical fairy tale, but never repressing the darkness of human cruelty and obsession. At their first meeting, Lermontov asks Vicky: “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” This is the core of the film’s heart: when your life depends on your art – what then?
RTM’s note: Wow, I’m really curious about this now. I just might try to catch this one over the weekend as it’s on Netflix’s Watch Instantly. I love ballet in movies but Black Swan might be too bizarre for my taste. Those who’ve seen this movie, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.