USA Today ran a story about the forthcoming ballet thriller, "Black Swan," starring Natalie Portman (left), two days after the Criterion Collection released its gorgeous DVD and Blu-ray of "The Red Shoes" (1948), starring Moira Shearer. The "Black Swan" director, Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler"), told USA Today that "The Red Shoes" is the only other ballet film comparable to "Black Swan," a gothic tale about a formally adept yet emotionally pallid ballerina (Portman) who must tap new wells of passion when she wins the lead in "Swan Lake." Aronofsky thought "The Red Shoes," by British movie masters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, had "a realistic point of view of this unique world" and "captured the human drama and sacrifice."
Yes, "The Red Shoes" is ecstastic entertainment -- and the restored version on Criterion is breathtaking. But its combination of realism and fantasy (and morbid fantasy, at that) is what makes it a knock-out.
As the great dance critic Arlene Croce once summarized, "'The Red Shoes' said that ballet dancers were crazy and/or doomed." She wrote that Powell and Pressburger loaded their story about a dancer's life "with a specialized atmosphere that was more suggestive than the fictions that it was intended to support -- such forties-movies themes as mad genius, the culture-sadism link, the career-marriage conflict. Their dancers looked real, their ballets (gems from the classical repertory, unerringly selected and photographed) looked real, even their fabrications looked real. 'The Red Shoes' was a horror story told in the form of a dance musical with dance supplying the main thrills."
Even if Aronofsky buys the "Red Shoes" view of dance as literal truth, he looked to the right model for "Black Swan," judging from its edge-of-madness storyline. And in Portman, who studied ballet until she was 13, and pulled off a different sort of dance as the stripper in "Closer," he may have found the right star. Michael Powell wrote that he would never have made "The Red Shoes" without a real ballerina as his leading lady. In Moira Shearer he found a red-headed beauty whose fresh ardor pulls you through the most torturous passages. As one onlooker says, both in Powell's memoirs and in the "Red Shoes" script, she is "a corker." So's the movie.
Croce wrote of "The Red Shoes" in 1978, "there really is no other ballet film." But other worthies have appeared since then. I would put Robert Altman's "The Company" in its class. And even balletomanes who don't care for the Paris Opera Ballet will savor the revelatory details in "La Danse," Fred Wiseman's epic documentary portrait of the company. What are your favorite classical dance films?
Photo of Portman at AFI Life Achievement Awards honoring Mike Nichols (June 2010), by Chris Pizzello