Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky often tells interviewers that "The Red Shoes" (1948) is the one film comparable to his own "Black Swan." How modest of him!
Aronofsky was right to say that the classic by British masters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger "captured the human drama and sacrifice" of the ballet world. He was wrong to consider his film in the same class — downright daffy to think that "The Red Shoes" expresses a "realistic point of view" any more than "Black Swan" does.
Yes, "The Red Shoes" is ecstatic entertainment. The restored version that unspooled at the AFI Silver and is now on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD is breathtaking. But is it realistic? Only in the manner of an Expressionist painting.
Powell and Pressburger create a stylized, intoxicating environment that fuses art and life and dance and cinema. Their three main characters — elegant, ambitious ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), upstart composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and tyrannical impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) — go through conflicts every bit as extreme as those of Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel in Aronofsky's movie. But in "The Red Shoes," the filmmakers express a palpable love of ballet and the ballet-like qualities of filmmaking. This film moves like a dance. "The Black Swan" moves like a slasher film.
Lermontov sees Page's marriage to Craster as a betrayal of her talent. His life-for-art's-sake creed is no less demanding than the vulgar perfectionism of choreographer Cassel and the demented perfectionism of ballerina Portman in Aronofsky's movie. But as dance critic Arlene Croce once wrote, Powell and Presburger's taste (unlike Aronofsky's) "was so consistent — so consistently outrageous — that they made the imaginary happenings seem like plausible (though not, of course, literal) extensions of the behavior of classical ballet. … Their dancers looked real, their ballets (gems from the classical repertory, unerringly selected and photographed) looked real, even their fabrications looked real. 'The Red Shoes' was a horror story told in the form of a dance musical with dance supplying the main thrills." "The Black Swan" is mostly just a horror story — a banal one, at that.
Portman valiantly impersonates a dancer for Aronofsky. Shearer is a dancer in full bloom. Michael Powell wrote that he would never have made "The Red Shoes" without a real ballerina as his leading lady. In Shearer he found a red-headed beauty whose freshness and ardor pulls you through the most torturous passages. Both in Powell's memoirs and in Pressburger's script, one onlooker calls her "a corker." So's the movie.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times