The last time I heard an audience collectively gasp during a movie wasn’t very long ago, it’s just that the movie they were watching was over 60 years old. Of course, it looked like new. The restoration of The Red Shoes (1948) by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation has been making the rounds since its 2009 Cannes premiere. I saw it with a full house at the Cinematheque Ontario last summer. It’s difficult to describe the sort of rapture it aroused, not only for older patrons clearly familiar with the work, nor for younger ones who may or may not have seen The Red Shoes before—I hadn’t—but also for several kids who probably weren’t especially concerned with the arduous work involved in correcting the shrinkage, dirt, and mold damage that had compromised the original negative—Technicolor being a three-strip process means you basically restore the same movie three times. Nah, I think those kids sat mesmerized before this deeply sinister, 134-minute fairy tale-turned-backstage ballet melodrama about the costs of artistic devotion because it was fascinating and otherworldly, beautiful and fluid, because whether they know it or not The Red Shoes fulfills the promise of the movies like very few movies do.
Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray reissue of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece delivers the fruits of this restoration, with all its depth, warmth and detail, its velvet shadows, startling hues and creamy hair, right to your home. The story is so carefully structured that home video rewards viewing it chapter-by-chapter, though you may find it hard to hit pause. As the charismatic and nefarious impresario Boris Lermontov—deliciously played by Anton Walbrook—says while synopsizing his Red Shoes ballet: “Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by…” The rush of The Red Shoes emerges from its stylized condensation of a life in art, of rowdy youth quickly slipping away in favour of discipline, of the happy busyness of collaboration, of the ephemeral triumphs of theatre, captured through the use of real dancers, most notably our heroine, Vicky—played by the utterly natural Moira Shearer—gliding through deliriously artificial, subjectively-rendered choreography—Jack Cardiff’s camerawork is itself balletic—and colours so vivid as to resemble dream more than reality.
Watching the restored Red Shoes you begin to sense how Cardiff’s achievements with Technicolor—there really was no one better—signaled a fork in the road for how movies might look. We took the other route, I think, striving for fidelity rather than expression. At least that’s how it seems these days, when most large-scale filmmakers reluctantly embrace digital cinematography only as it approaches greater precision and crisper resolution. But things change. Time rushes by. At least the red shoes keep dancing.
Powell-Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (47) has also been lovingly re-issued by Criterion. Cardiff’s Technicolor imagery echoes Vermeer and Caravaggio to evoke yet another tale of troubled devotion, not to art but to god. Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh is sent up a mountain to build a convent on top of a brothel, but the Himalayan winds that endlessly sweep through the sisters’ habits seem to carry whispers of the past. Ceiling fans and birdcages create strange geometries within the drafty convent walls. Repressed memories of youth, innocence, and lust seep in the cracks. There’s a sense of vertigo running through the movie, not only in the images of steep cliffs and looming towers but in the emotional dynamics incited by the precarious attempt of eclipsing one world with another.
This colonialist strategy doesn’t finally fare very well for the church in Black Narcissus, but it works wonders for Powell and his crack production team, who filmed this achingly gorgeous and exotic tale not in the Himalayas but entirely at London’s Pinewood Studios. Powell would often utilize locations to stunning effect—see bombed-out Canterbury in A Canterbury Tale (44) or Chesil Beach in The Small Back Room (49)—but he and Pressburger seemed to understand that the struggle of spirit and flesh they sought to depict would need to be realized in a heightened and highly controlled setting.
The only aspect of Black Narcissus that leaves me cold has something to do with its somewhat airy idea of India. I suspect this has something to do with Rumer Godden’s source novel, since Jean Renoir’s The River (51), also based on a Godden, has the same effect on me while being in virtually every sense a completely different sort of work—one shot on location in India. Nonetheless, each of the major characters, most of whom are British, are more complex than their archetypes would have it, and are played to the hilt, not only by Kerr but also Kathleen Byron, as Sister Ruth, and David Farrar, as Mr. Dean, who becomes the object of Ruth and perhaps Clodagh’s desire. Bryon and Farrar would be able to consummate their love in The Small Back Room, but in the meantime the peculiar tension they develop here remains deeply satisfying. Powell called this his most erotic film and he may he right. It’s certainly his most neurotic film—Peeping Tom (60) excepted—and deserves to be seen and re-seen for the arresting ways it conjures the unconscious at the very top of the world.