“Why do you want to dance?” barks the imperious ballet impresario Boris Lermontov in “The Red Shoes,” the 1948 masterpiece from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
“Why do you want to live?” answers the young ballerina, Victoria Page, her face pale and pure as cream. It’s a mad, beautiful line, yet she utters it so easily, without apparent effort or guile, that you know that she means it and that you’re meant to believe it too. She dances because she must, because there is no choice. She dances until the sweat beads on her brow, and the abyss opens. Mostly, she dances because she is a flame for art, blazing bright until she is snuffed out.
Widely deemed the most famous ballet film ever made, “The Red Shoes,” directed by Powell and written by Pressburger (officially sharing the credits), has been the inspiration for countless bleeding feet and soaring artistic passions since its release. It is likely to seduce yet new generations of seekers and true believers, some of whom will doubtless be practicing demi-pliés on the ticket line when the movie — recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with help from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and several other groups — opens at Film Forum on Friday for a two-week run. This is essential viewing because even if you think you have seen the movie before its restoration, if you’re under 60, you probably haven’t seen it anywhere near its original Technicolor glory.
This born-again version of “The Red Shoes,” digitally resuscitated from battered prints and negatives, should surprise even those who have watched the fine Criterion DVD. A film like few others, made like few others — the Powell and Pressburger partnership remains sui generis — it reaches high and strikes its mark, at times improbably. It’s an insistently designed work of non-naturalism, daubed with startling, unreal, gaudy colors that seem to have been created to blast away the last traces of wartime drear. The colors in “The Red Shoes” don’t just exist, they also express. “Color and I are one,” the painter Paul Klee said. When watching “The Red Shoes,” it’s easy to imagine Powell saying the same. Instead, he said, “I am cinema.”
Loosely taken from the macabre Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Red Shoes” follows Vicky (Moira Shearer, a real ballerina, making her film debut) from her first determined steps in the corps to stardom in Lermontov’s company. Partly based on the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev — with some Powell thrown in — and played with mesmerizing ferocity by the Viennese-born actor Anton Walbrook, Lermontov drives Vicky toward perfection, insisting that she sacrifice everything for art, even her heart. But she falls in love with Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the composer of the work that makes her a star, succumbing to him as she rehearses the ballet. Enraged by her supposed betrayal, Lermontov fires Julian, and Vicky quits, only to later and fatally return.
Vicky is caught between Julian, the selfish lover who wants her only for himself, and Lermontov, whose obsession with her appears to transcend the sexual, suggesting a kind of demonic possession. A suave number partial to sunglasses, Lermontov appears several times in and on trains belching clouds of smoke, an evocation of Vicky’s catastrophic final leap. (According to Powell, Ms. Shearer leapt without a double, landing on a mattress.) Until then, Vicky spins and spins and spins, her vertiginous journey visually echoed in the images of fans and a rotating record and, in one astonishing scene, a seemingly endless spiral staircase on which she flees the theater and its fantasies to head into the hard light of the real world.
“The ballet of ‘The Red Shoes,’ ” Lermontov explains to Julian early in the film, “is the story of a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. And first all goes well, and she’s very happy.” She tires, but: “The red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forest, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.” Then what happens? Julian asks, not realizing that he’s asking for the end of his own story.
“Oh,” Lermontov says with a small wave of the hand. “In the end she dies.”
This is about as much exposition as Pressburger provides in a screenplay that, while richly embroidered with memorable, quotable lines (“Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat”), is a vehicle for cinema, not speeches. Indeed, several nondance scenes unfold without a word, as does the spectacular 15-minute ballet centerpiece. (The choreographer Robert Helpmann dances the part of the boy, while Léonide Massine, a Diaghilev protégé, makes a dazzling and suitably devilish cobbler.) Somewhat reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s more fantastic dance numbers, the ballet doesn’t take place on a conventional, constricted stage, for the viewing pleasure of a clapping audience, but in a purely cinematic realm, complete with trick photography.
In this strange and violent dance, the theater’s walls melt away, and the barriers between Vicky and her character, between art and life, at which Lermontov has been steadily pounding, give way. That life and art are finally inseparable is a theme of the story, or perhaps its lesson. This refusal of barriers extends to the filmmaking itself, which draws on other arts — literature, painting, dance and music — and recombines them into cinema. That synthesis, in turn, is mirrored by the creative partnership of the two filmmakers, who, calling themselves the Archers, usually shared the credit “written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,” an acknowledgment of the intimacy of their collaboration and shared vision.
A box office disappointment in Britain, where it was indifferently released by the producer J. Arthur Rank, “The Red Shoes” was a smash elsewhere, playing for two years in Manhattan. Not long ago I met a woman who said she watched it every week for a year when it opened in Los Angeles. She went on to dance with Arthur Freed’s unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, home to some of the most glorious film musicals not made by Powell and Pressburger. In his autobiography Powell writes that Gene Kelly repeatedly showed “The Red Shoes” to MGM executives before getting permission to make Vincente Minnelli’s “American in Paris” — an influence most evident in the long ballet Kelly dances in that film. Time rushes by. The red shoes dance on.