At this year's Cannes festival, the renowned director Martin Scorsese announced the completion of a seven-year labor of love: the restoration of the classic 1940s British film, The Red Shoes. Scorsese has never been shy about revealing which films have inspired him; in two documentaries he produced in the late 1990s he discussed the importance that both classical Hollywood and post-war Italian cinema played in making him decide to become a filmmaker. Through his World Cinema Foundation, launched in 2007, he continues to spearhead efforts to recover and to restore classic forgotten films which otherwise may have been forever lost.
His relationship to The Red Shoes, though, seems to me to be outside of much of this. Indeed, for a director whose work is generally associated with realism, violence, and Catholic guilt, it perhaps seems odd that he should hold in such esteem a melodramatic romance about ballet based around a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Yet in interviews he has candidly described it as "the movie that plays in my heart." His dedication to its preservation and his fervent championing of both it and the wider canon of films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger show that the film has more than a great significance for him.
The key to an appreciation of the film is to understand that at its core it is about the creation of artistic spectacle, and the sacrifices which must be made in its process. Take away the film's romance plot line, one that can be found in countless matinée melodramas, and what is left is one of the darkest portraits of obsession put on screen, a clear inspiration for Scorsese's own maniacal protagonists as well as those of Messrs Schrader, Coppola, De Palma et al -- a deep plunge into the heart of darkness of all artistic creativity.
The story will revolve around a curious ménage à trois between two younger characters trying to enter the ballet world and an older one who knows no other world, but to begin with they are all, like the cinema audience themselves, spectators. The world famous Ballet Lermontov has come to London, led by the charismatic but enigmatic Boris Lermontov and starring renowned prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja. In the audience, eager to catch the attention of the Russian impresario, is Vicki Page, whose influential aunt Lady Neston forcibly tries to arrange an impromptu audition for her at the after-show party. Lermontov is disinterested, but enquires why it is she wants to dance. “Why do you want to live?” Vicki replies somewhat rhetorically. Within this exchange it is clear that he sees something of promise, and so invites her to study with his company.