Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Ballet is unnerving to say the least. Take your pick: the claw of social physique anxiety, the distorted extremes that the body endures (those feet ... ) and all the masochistic rapture wrapped in elegant silks and serene music can be profoundly disturbing. The art form's beauty is ripe with paradox. Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' exposes the wounded psyche of dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), while Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes' follows ballerina Victoria (Moira Shearer) -- weaving a somewhat different kind of tale.
The 1948 film has all the technicolor grandeur one might expect about a ballet hopeful who relentlessly immerses herself in the dance -- her shining moment a fantastical performance based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Red Shoes.' The story revolves around a young woman who falls in love with a pair of red shoes and can't wait to slip them on. Once they grace her feet, however, she quickly realizes that although she grows tired of dancing, the shoes do not -- and they dance her right to her death. It's a fable brought to life as Victoria -- who has worked effortlessly to win the admiration of her company's strict impresario, and at the same time has fallen madly in love with the ballet company's composer -- is forced to choose between two worlds.
I feel as though I say it every week, but choosing a single frame from this gorgeous film was nearly impossible. Below are a few key points surrounding the stunning and surreal performance in which Victoria dances 'The Red Shoes.' It's also an excuse to plaster this article with more than one amazing image.
While the central performance is easily the richest source to pull frames from, doing so almost negates the power of the film's first and latter halves. Stories surrounding musical form typically use the final act to unveil their productions, but Powell and Pressburger were one of the first to choose the movie's mid-point -- providing a deeper context for the audience to absorb the narrative more fully, based on what comes before and after. Still, this sequence is the centerpiece of the film for a reason and its power is undeniable. The ballet is clearly a parallel for Victoria's life and the visions she sees of her beau, conductor Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and her director, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), cement that fact.
'The Red Shoes' manages to master the bold technicolor format in a unique way. The format doesn't seem unrealistic during scenes of the everyday -- despite what its vivid and fantastical color palette would suggest -- and yet propels you into those dream-like moments at all the right times (the scene where Victoria approaches that impossible staircase at the villa, for example, shows a subtle shift). What starts as a conventional performance, ends in a nearly 20 minute spellbinding voyage into the subconscious of the lead ballerina. The dramatic color pushes things into hazy, phantasmagorical territory.
Technicolor founders Herbert T. Kalmus and Natalie Kalmus considered 'The Red Shoes' to be a shining example of the three-strip color process. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff broke the rules, so to speak, with his methodology -- mainly by using various filters, adjusting shutter speeds and reducing the lighting in certain scenes -- and thankfully so because the results are one of a kind.
After the War, some British filmmakers adopted an expressionistic tone to their work as a rejection of the stark realism and documentary style of the WWII films. One way 'The Red Shoes' maintains its realism is by seamlessly interpreting the art of dance into a film -- it literally becomes that which it portrays -- versus trying to build a movie around the art form. This is done by using actual dancers for the key parts, and not actors who were shot with body doubles for the ballet scenes, amongst other things.
While this is interesting, it's the expressionistic set design and lighting that steers the film in another direction entirely -- most notably during Victoria's show and other moments on stage. Everything from the costuming, exaggerated and almost mask-like makeup (as well as close-up frames of the actor's faces displaying heightened emotions), scene compositions, camera play and editing contribute to the atmospheric and expressionistic visuals of the dance scene.
To achieve this look, the directors called upon surrealist painter Hein Heckroth to help them design Victoria's world. The artist created 130 oil paintings, which inspired the film's set design (part of almost 2,000 storyboard sketches, drawings and paintings overall). Heckroth's artworks were then turned into an animatic, which acted as a guide for Cardiff's lively cinematography. The result is truly like watching a painting in motion.
These images provide just a few entry points into a visually sophisticated and arresting film that is ripe with metaphorical, otherworldly beauty. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's direction, combined with Jack Cardiff's cinematography and Hein Heckroth's unforgettable designs evoke a lush visual landscape that perfectly straddles the blurred lines between dreams and reality. It's almost cliché to point out that film is a visual medium, but films like 'The Red Shoes' serve as poignant reminders of the power of pictures in motion.