Well, Nathaniel went and did it: he finally picked the most beautiful movie ever made for Hit Me with Your Best Shot. We turn, this week, to The Red Shoes, the 1948 ballet drama written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, designed by Hein Heckroth, shot by Jack Cardiff, and generally speaking the movie in which Technicolor reached its peak, as well as possibly cinema itself, though I’d probably need to be a bit cagey about the latter of those claims.
Now, sometimes when I approach these HMWYBS candidates that I’ve seen before, I have no idea what I want to pick until I rewatch the whole movie. Sometimes I have a good sense of where I want to end up, and I rewatch it all just to be sure. And sometimes I stare myself straight in the face and say, “Tim, don’t be a fucking idiot. You’re picking something from the ballet. You’re probably picking the shot where she looks at herself dancing in the store window. Because this isn’t a competition, and you don’t get points for being the most obscure.”
So here is a shot from the ballet – she’s looking at herself dancing in the store window.
If you haven’t seen The Red Shoes, rest assured that it’s the biggest gap in your film education, and you should make it a short-term priority. If you have seen it, I don’t imagine this shot needs too much contextualising, but for the sake of form, here’s a reminder: Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is the brightest new thing in the world of ballet, having been taken in by the tyrannical impresario and genius Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and made a star. She falls in love with the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and thereon hangs a triangle: not so much between two men over one woman, but between artistic passion and quiet humanity. The stakes are expressed, right around the film’s midpoint, by a glorious ballet adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes”, in which a young girl receives a pair of magical ballet slippers that allow her to dance more beautifully than anyone, but at the grave price that she can never stop until her death. In 15 of the finest minutes in all of film, we see this ballet play out, though it could never be shown on any stage in the world the way we see it, with its whirlwind of dissolves and special effects creating a hellish fantasy that’s a metaphorical extension of Vicky’s internal dilemma, with Lermontov and Julian flashing into the spaces occupied by the demonic shoemaker in the ballet.
There’s not a single moment of the ballet that isn’t precious to me, so this is as much a stand-in for the whole as it is the single irreducible shot I wanted to talk about, but let’s stick with it. This is the moment that the young woman in the ballet first spies the shoes, and realises how desperately she wants them, more than anything. Right before her eyes, her reflection begins dancing a completely different set of steps than she is, more fluid and energetic, while the shoemaker urges the ghostly dancer on with a most upsetting series of gesticulations and leers. It’s as blunt as foreshadowing gets: the reflection is manic, and it acts of its own volition, not behaving according to the woman’s desires at all. And while it’s not really as noticeable in motion, I’m happy that the specific still frame I got makes it seem like the dancer is warding off her vision, understanding at some intuitive level that it’s only there to destroy her.
Anyway, subtlety is nice but obvious can be a lot of fun, and this is as direct and unambiguous a one-image summary of the whole movie as there is. Stay behind with the normal, boring boyfriend in the bright light, or move into the darkness, become a brilliant dancer, and have the devil always at your side. It’s ballet, after all, the best marriage of ballet and cinema ever achieved; the whole point of ballet is that you know exactly what’s going on the second you lay eyes on the position of bodies. It’s that level of rich, overpowering emotion that makes the film a masterpiece, with its rich, overpowering visuals and rich, overpowering melodrama. It’s maybe the best of all movie spectacles, and its images are broad and expressive enough to match. Every shot of The Red Shoes is the best shot.