The Red Shoes Powell and Pressburger (UK 1948) Moira Shearer, Marius Goring
Viewed Tyneside Cinema: 22 Dec 2009 Ticket price:£7.00
Retrocrit: Red for locked
Hair’s a big thing in the movies. I think of Lauren Bacall’s hair that transmutes into undulating waves; Marilyn Monroe’s peroxide message of seductive untouchability; and to the case in point, the stupendous and overpowering red mountainous shock of locks adorning Moira Shearer. In both painting and film hair has an iconic function: iconic used here to mean a pictorial sign pointing to an idea about itself not the actuality.
Hair is a feature that can set an individual apart from others, or divide off an ordinary personage from an extraordinary. In film, and in actual life, we are talking ‘coiffure’. It seems to me that the defining feature of ‘the coiffure’ is that it is a physical sign of ‘that which may not be touched’: a statement of a complete self containment. The outer perfection of hair in this form forbids or warns off physical engagement or psychic entanglement with the hair by any other party. As a sign, the coiffure is a statement by its wearer of their heightened consciousness of their elected function or appointed role which is expressed with a claimed state of physical and psychic apartness.
In this respect hair, big style hair, is the natural adornment of both the Goddess figure and fairy tale figure. Screen goddesses and those taking on the role of female fairy tale characters are girls/women who are complete in themselves. They are immune to any other defining forces such as social status or male characters. In the case of the Screen Goddesses (such as Dietrich, Monroe) whilst they are on screen their hair allows them to carry themselves with little reference to either story or plot machinations. Of course their appearance in any given film is cued by the narrative, but what is actually happens is that they command the camera and our attention. On screen their presence expands to fill out consciousness. Plot usually has to move along when they are off screen or else be co-opted only with their gracious consent.
In the case of the fairy tale movie (Garland; Shearer) the female protagonists, the fairy tale characters marked out by their hair, are enfolded into their fate by the relentless and immutable unfolding of the narrative, a predetermined mechanical vehicle that allows of no escape. As Vicky, Moira Shearer’s pile of red hair in the Red Shoes encompasses the elemental idea of her role; her assignation is with the fateful path pointed to by the story. There is no possibility of happy ending such as marriage (male force) or by herself somehow deflecting her fate away from death. The film simply follows her inevitable career from its beginning to its end. There is no possibility of either rescue from her situation or the setting in motion of forces that would free her from her fate. And Vicky’s hair is the signifier of her role as a being who cannot be touched except by the psychic elements built into the logic of the story. For Vicky Red Shoes, as with the little Mermaid and the Tin Soldier, there is no overcoming; there is only submission.
It was Powell and Emeric’s (P and E) strength as film makers to understand the nature of their material, and what their material made filmically possible. They never try to make of their subject matter something that it is not. There is no conflict in the filmed story. There are only the forces at work within Vicky’s psyche. When Vicky replaces Baronskaya, the situation is not used as an opportunity to introduce a back stage melodrama. The process of her replacement is carried through without tears or resistance from Baronskaya,. In the fairy tale world of P and E. Baronskaya has in effect escaped Bluebeard’s castle in leaving the Ballet Lermonov, and thereby avoiding his psychic enmeshment. This also highlights the fact that the Red Shoes film script contains elements of the Bluebeard’s Castle story. Its narrative line is a sort of hybrid of the two tales, but with the fateful element drawn from the Red Shoes. But what P and E understood was that they were not making a Hollywood movie in which the characters invoke a pseudo ethos of optimistic self determination as per Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain They were dealing with darker material; hence perhaps their lack of success and recognition in the US, and also their difficulty in a post war Europe eager to buy into the hope of the American dream.
P and E always use colour as a base element in their films. In the Red Shoes, constantly changing sets of colour wash through the film creating a world of enchantment. Although Technicolor is the medium, its purpose is not as in the Wizard of Oz to create the synthetic brash patina of the nursery; the hues and tones the greens yellows reds and blues of Red Shoes are muted, absorbent in nature, taking the viewer into the emotional grain of the film. The colour concept of P and E embodies the dark telling of a dark fairy tale.
The visual highlight of the film, Vicky’s dance of the Red Shoes is a breathtaking montage of colour light sound, with changing morphing sets, that equals if not surpasses the sequences danced by Gene Kelly in Minnelli musicals where plastic film form creates a series of worlds out of a fluidity of images. “Dance is no longer simply movement of world, but passage from one world to another, entry into another world, breaking in and exploring”. (Deleuze – Cinema 2 p.63) Though the Red Shoes dance sequence has a different filmic function from An American in Paris, it does serve as the final initiation of Vicky and confirms her entry into the embrace of the fairy tale: something we knew all along because of that hair, but confirmed for us by an extraordinary sequence, that one imagines was studied by both Minnelli and Kelly.