Fancy footwork

Once condemned by its financial backers and its star, The Red Shoes is now a cinematic classic, packing houses in Manhattan.

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For a film first released in 1948, called a disaster by its financial backers and dismissed by its star as "silly and banal", Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes is enjoying a majestic resurgence. Digitally restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with assistance from Martin Scorsese (one of the film's most insistent promoters) and many others, the magnificent new print of The Red Shoes - unveiled at this year's Cannes Film Festival - arrived for a two-week run at New York's Film Forum this month, wowed critics and audiences, and grossed approximately $30,000 (Dh110,000) each week on a single screen. I saw it on the final day of the its engagement, and the weekday afternoon screening played to a packed house.

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd was so smitten that she ditched her usual weekly dose of political prognostication and devoted her entire Sunday column to an appreciation of this reinvigorated British classic. Film Forum programmed it alongside another surprise smash hit, La Danse, a new Frederick Wiseman documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet. Outside observers can only come to one of two possible conclusions: either New Yorkers love watching dance on camera, or Film Forum has opportunistically catered its programming to a recession-era consumers who want ballet but lack the disposable income.

Either way, nobody would mistake The Red Shoes for anything but pure cinema. Written and directed by the acclaimed godfathers of British cinema - known collectively as The Archers - and shot in ravishing Technicolor by the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, it's one of those painterly films where every frame seems fussed over. It also feels steeped in magic. The film's centrepiece, a 15-minute performance based on Hans Christian Andersen's eponymous fairy tale, is a ballet marked by the sort of enchanted flight of fancy - aided by trick photography - that could never materialise on an actual, earthbound stage. And the melodrama is made up of the sort of backstage intrigue one can never fully sublimate into one's art.

"Why do you want to dance?" asks Lermontov, the impresario of an internationally distinguished ballet company. "Why do you want to live?" answers the ingénue Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, a real ballerina who rarely acted again). The Red Shoes is one of cinema's most vivid depictions of sacrifice as a necessary component of great art. As Lermontov systematically urges his young star towards greatness, he requires that she forsake all external diversions in pursuit of the goal. "A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer," he proclaims.

Her ambitions parallel those of Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the passionate young composer whose rise coincides with her own, once she assumes the lead role in his musical adaptation of Andersen's parable about a pair of dancing shoes that continue inexorably dancing even after the wearer tires and eventually dies of exhaustion. Her performance seems to transcend all worldly emotion: she has achieved a kind of greatness. But once the ballet ends, the unruly real world takes over, and she falls into a triangle of desire with Lermontov and Craster, two very different, equally flawed virtuosos.

The "doubtful comforts" that Lermontov decries are impossible to deny once the applause has died down. The Red Shoes was conceived by Powell as a manifesto promoting the splendour of art over the commonplace inevitabilities of daily life. The Second World War had ended and young people were searching for new systems of belief. "For 10 years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy," he said. "But now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art."

It is hard to know whether these ambitions have anything to do with the film's present resurgence, but I doubt it. Instead of providing a mission statement, the Archers' most durable creation offers normally restless viewers a window into an exotic world defined by rigid commitment to a craft. The Red Shoes is available for convenient home viewing as a Criterion Collection DVD, but it makes sense that New Yorkers would flock to see it projected on to the big screen; the lead characters' passions, jealousies, and hard-headedness make sense only when all outside distractions are dismissed. This is not a movie that allows one to meet it halfway.