The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger / United Kingdom, 1948):

The Goethean rupture, Ballet Russe treatment. To rush "into the jaws of Hell," that's the artist's duty, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wouldn't have it any other way. (Their tabernacle is suspended between velvet balcony and orchestra pit, the stage separating the two stands at one point before a churning blue sea.) The imperious impresario (Anton Walbrook) shares with the young dancer (Moira Shearer) the religion of aestheticism, the student composer with a domestic side (Marius Goring) configures their notes without quite understanding their obsessive music. "Very pure and fine, but you can't change human nature." "No...?" The ballet company's labors are those of cinema, as later echoed by Wiseman and Altman, the camera tracks into the proscenium and suddenly there's the Hans Christian Andersen tale of possessed slippers as a lighted screen full of spiraling images. (The tricks are there to be seen, demonic cellophane and Méliès cuts comprise a spectacle to dazzle Arthur Freed and Kenneth Anger equally.) The despot-auteur basks in the success of his mise en scène, only to realize that his marionettes are in love—nothing beats the way Walbrook, having learned of the romance blossoming between Shearer and Goring, funnels all the contempt of the universe into the word "charming." Exaltation of the muse, l'artiste et la mort: "Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on." The Archers magnum opus on themes reaching back to The Edge of the World, the maiden's cruel dilemma illuminated by Jack Cardiff's cinematography and Robert Helpmann's choreography. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast for the heroine's ascension at the Monte Carlo villa, Maya Deren for the pirouetting lenses; Swan Lake offers Shearer in wide-eyed close-up like a pre-Raphaelite Flidais, Les Sylphides dissolves to the nude gargoyle perched by the maestro's window. "Only art promises immortality." (Diaghilev) An incomparable hallucination of fatale beauté absorbed by De Palma and Scorsese and Jarman and many others, just the altar for the divine nymph in the aquamarine chiffon gown finally seen with red all over. With Léonid Massine, Albert Bassermann, Ludmilla Tchérina, and Esmond Knight.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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