As ‘Black Swan’ Opens, Leah Rozen Looks Back at ‘The Red Shoes’

 Anglophenia is excited to welcome renowned movie critic Leah Rozen to cover our weekly film beat. Rozen was the movie critic at People magazine for 13 years, until she decided that seeing six to eight movies weekly was cruel and unusual punishment. She now reviews one movie a week for TheWrap.com and writes for the New York Times and other publications. Read her very first Anglophenia movie review for the Colin Firth film ‘The King’s Speech.’

Photo by Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight

The old adage says that life imitates art. Sometimes, though, art imitates art.

Case in point: Black Swan, the new psychological thriller from director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler). It’s about a gifted ballerina, played with ferocious intensity by Natalie Portman (photo right), who is dedicated, too much it turns out for her own mental good, to her art.

Sound familiar? The all-time classic ballet movie is The Red Shoes, a 1948 British film about a gifted young ballerina, played with ferocious intensity and blazing luminosity by Moira Shearer, who’s also too dedicated to her art.

Aronofsky isn’t the first director, and he won’t be the last, to be influenced by, borrow from, and pay homage to The Red Shoes.

It’s not just filmmakers who love the movie. When it opened originally in New York, it played in the same theater for two years straight.

Over the years, The Red Shoes has inspired generations of girls (and a few boys, too) to pull on tutus, tie on toe shoes, and belly up to the barre. It plunges viewers into the fervid world of ballet and makes sacrificing all for one’s art seem like an incontrovertible choice.

Moira Shearer

What makes The Red Shoes so great? First, there’s the look of this Technicolor masterpiece. Co-directors-writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who adapted their story from the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name about a girl bewitched by her dancing shoes, drench the movie in color so sumptuously rich it nearly drugs you, like the field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz.

Then there is the ardency of the feelings expressed by all the film’s characters. Moira Shearer’s dancer must dance. Anton Walbrook‘s autocratic head of the ballet company will accept nothing short of total dedication and perfection from his dancers. Marius Goring‘s composer, who loves the ballerina, wants her to give up dancing to be only with him. No one does passion just halfway here. This is what Art, with a capital “A,” is all about.

Lastly, there are the glorious, almost expressionistic, even phantasmagoric dance sequences, which serve both to reflect what’s going on with the movie’s characters and to further the story. The dancing numbers manage to reveal simultaneously both the beauty and the hyper-artificiality of ballet. It may look amazing, the movie seems to be saying, but there is nothing natural about twirling and twirling on your big toe and there’s always a price to be paid.

For all these reasons and more, The Red Shoes has been endlessly influential. Gene Kelly drew from it for his extended, climactic ballet number in 1951′s An American in Paris. Director Martin Scorsese is such a fan of the film — actually, of all Powell’s work — that he served as a driving force behind a brilliant new print restoration of the movie. He also contributed a commentary on the Criterion Collection’s recently released DVD and Blu-ray edition of that restored print version of movie.

The Red Shoes reminds us of the miracle of film. While a great ballet performance is evanescent, exiting only in the memories of the hundred or thousand persons who saw it in a theater that night, Shearer’s dancing here is forever.

To see more of her in action, go to: http://www.criterion.com/films/233-the-red-shoes