'The Red Shoes' & the Darker Side of Dance

Johann Chipol's own Red Shoes homage!
   So, in spite of the fact that I am a notoriously fast, rambly speaker - particularly when I get going on a subject - filmmaker Johann Chipol recently asked me to feature on his podcast, 'Approved by Cinephiles'. He asked me to review Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) and I in turn, sticking to a similar theme, gave him All That Jazz (1979) to review.

   All That Jazz never really sat that well with me, but The Red Shoes certainly did - as it did with many people throughout film history. If you haven't seen the film, you've certainly seen it's influences in modern pieces; Martin Scorsese, for example, says that he makes a visual homage to The Red Shoes in every single one of his films.

  I wouldn't say that The Red Shoes is completely ageless. Its characters are very British-Stiff-Upper-Lip types, and the edit - for the most part - is steady and seemingly timid, or aimless, as though something were brimming under the surface, waiting for the moment to burst out (and it's the same for the refined but passionate characters).

  But then it does burst; limited to the world of the stage, there is a second act in the film that suddenly throws all filming conventions to the wind - breaking rules and making them too - as it throws itself full throttle into fantasy territory, but only to bring truth to the emotion of the theatre. And in one (long) scene, cinema history was made.

   Because of the extravaganza of that second act, it seemed wrong to limit my review of the film to an audio piece - even one edited as caringly as Johann edits - so I thought I'd write this companion piece for my blog; not so much to repeat myself as to support the comments I had to make. In specific regard to the section of the podcast where I talk about the effect The Red Shoes clearly had on later films.

  A brief personal history of the film, from my experience. In 2010, I wrote and directed my graduation film (and also my first film to ever be accepted into a festival), The Opening Night (above). It was my lovenote to my memories of (amateur) theatre, with visuals that homaged one of my favourite films, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001). 

   When we were in pre-production for The Opening Night, the film's great cinematographer Emmaalouise Smith pointed out that I should watch The Red Shoes for reference, and it was soon clear why: just as Moulin Rouge! inspired The Opening Night, The Red Shoes inspired Moulin Rouge! The lingering corridor shots and backstage glimpses are comparable, but to see an obvious homage, you need to look no further than the hair colour of the lead characters in both films - and therefore, respectively, in The Opening Night.

Red-headed leading ladies: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (left) and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! (right)
   Not to mention the fact that both The Red Shoes and Moulin Rouge! feature visual fairytale references, and a jealous, possessive male antagonist that broods in a dark, Gothic set while wearing a robe!

Gothic camp: Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes (left) and Richard Roxburg in Moulin Rouge! (right)

  But these weren't the only films to feature a redheaded heroine dancing in the spotlight. Check out the subtle reference in David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). Whether or not this was an intentional homage isn't clear, but here it is nonetheless:

Cate Blanchett as red-headed dancer Daisy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

  Perhaps the most obvious (and most recent) film that compares to The Red Shoes is Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010). Both feature a lead character's whose state of mind deteriorates rapidly within the intense world of the theatre, and the desire for perfection, and both films feature lingering shots of said character walking through backstage corridors. But there is one direct homage in the film: both films feature whip-pans with sudden cuts to close-ups, increasingly close, to represent the visual effect of pirouetting. Black Swan used this technique perfectly, but The Red Shoes did it first!

'Moonlit' swan queens: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (left) and Natalie Portman in Black Swan (right)

  It's not just feature films that reference The Red Shoes. It's become such a piece of ingrained pop culture that people think of the film before they think of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, and you can see its influence in various other art forms, including music. There's Kate Bush's 1993 album of the same name (and lauded but somewhat entertaining companion film), and Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine may be iconic for her red mane, but who can watch her music video for Spectrum without feeling a happy flicker of memory for the walking pop-art that was Moira Shearer?

Present-day iconic redhead Florence Welch homages Swan Lake.

   Those are all my visual points for now. I recommend you watch The Red Shoes for yourself, and if you want to hear my two cents on it, here's Johann's Podcast on Soundcloud:


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