Wednesday, 30 December 2009

the red shoes (powell & pressburger)

Powell and Pressburger. The alliterative combination itself seems to conjure up some kind of lost golden age of British cinema. When their curious, quixotic talents were allowed to flower, producing unconventional gems, against the odds, quintessentially British, both for their charm, and their peculiarity.

It's the end of a decade, and there all sorts of lists drifting around quoting the finest films of the last ten years. As ever, this prompts reflection on what makes for a great film, what are the magic ingredients that enable a filmmaker to achieve something with the medium which lends a distinction to their work which others can only hope to emulate. Of course there are a hundred and one analyses available. However, The Red Shoes, it all its curious glory, brought to mind the idea that for a film to rise above its peers, to shine, it requires a boldness of vision, a kind of majesty, which is quite likely to be at odds with given diktats of genre and form, but which the filmmaker(s)' chutzpah somehow pulls off. These are films which aren't afraid of boredom or loose narrative threads, which are prepared to test their audience's patience, but which reward them in the end.

The Red Shoes is a film about ballet. So perhaps it's not surprising that about two thirds of the way in, the film abandons its narrative to enter into a twenty minute sequence (at a guess) which is pure ballet, a ballet conceived and executed for the screen. Only, of course, it is surprising. Because what rule book allows a narrative to cut itself off for this length of time, suspending character development and narrative action? Yet, without the ballet sequence, the Red Shoes would not have pulled of its strange, fairy tale alchemy. Whilst there are characters, and a narrative to speak of, in fact the filmmakers are consciously creating an exploration of what it means to create art, the tension between life and art, the irresistibility of the will to create. It's Nietzche wrapped up in technicolour. However, it's also dazzling entertainment, a son y lumiere show underpinned with philosophical intrigue.

These are (some of) the reasons why it works. Whilst the acting is engaging, and the quirky humour engaging, and the louche charm of this itinerant ballet world is engaging, ultimately it's the film's near absurdly grandiose ambitions which lift it out of melodrama onto another plane altogether. Ambitions which demand a cinematic verve; it's hard to think of any other film of any other era which has captured the process of dance so compellingly, something which its lofty ambitions absolutely require. Powell and Pressburger do indeed reach for the stars, and in the act of reaching, take their audience with them, offering a perspective which the everyday or the banal or the rulebook cannot permit.

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