Black Swan v The Red Shoes

by Ian Thompson

Black Swan image 1
If you haven’t seen ‘Black Swan’ yet it’s well worth a look. Had a great night at the Adelphi last night discussing the double bill we nominated for this month’s film club – Black Swan v The Red Shoes. Given that the ballet film genre seems to consist of pretty much these two films with over 60 years separating them, it was impossible not to do them together.

I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who’s thinking of watching ‘Black Swan’, but I think it’s particularly notable for a few reasons:

Natalie Portman as a freaked out ballerina is an inspired piece of casting. It’s like when Stephen Fry played Oscar Wilde (although this is a significantly better film) – it’s the part she was born to play and it produces an instant, powerful iconic image. The posters of her are the whole pitch in a single picture and it’s difficult not to want to find out more. She clearly put in the hours on the dancing and her ‘method’ also delivered an emaciated and screwed-up Portman who probably had little need to act by the time it came to shoot (although this is unlikely to put off the Academy at the next Oscars who will surely find the performance irresistible.). Lee Strasberg would’ve been impressed.

We were concerned that the film wouldn’t be running for long because it felt a bit arty and indie for the Vues and Odeons to consider a long run. Isn’t it great though, when audiences pick up a film, especially one as difficult as this and make an event out of it. Event cinema has had a real renaissance this year with films like ‘Inception’ and ‘The King’s Speech’. However, Black Swan is the real surprise, and it’s really heartening for the film industry that this kind of work can enjoy such popular success.

All the performances are great – Vincent Cassel, who was superb in ‘Eastern Promises‘  barely needs to utter a word to deliver charismatic menace as the overbearing artistic director, such is the power of his unnerving physical appearance. Mila Kunis, who was, without doubt, the visual highlight of ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ plays a vital narrative role as the friend/nemesis. Apart from Portman though, the big part is the ‘Mommie Dearest’ performance form Barbara Hershey who I’ve always though was a bit weird and scary.

I’m pretty sure there’s a high concept idea behind it all, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a landmark piece of cinema and you’d be daft if you waited for the DVD.

Red shoes image
However, it would arguably not be the same film, had ‘The Red Shoes’ not been made some 63 years earlier. I’m a huge fan of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before in this blog. This is considered to be their magnum opus, although it’s not my favourite of theirs.

A few years ago, we rebranded the revolutionary Dartington estate in Devon and I was fascinated to discover that both had stayed there during WWII as Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew was forced to flee Germany and took exile first in France and then England.

If you ever get to see both, I’ll let you decide on the degree of influence of one on the other. It’s fair to say though, that ‘The Red Shoes’ set the bar, not only for film concerned with dance and performance, but also for the way films could look, given enough vision and ambition. The dialogue feels pompous and stilted now, but it’s difficult to argue with the look of the film and you can see so much of what filmmakers have done since in it.

One principal difference in the two films is the fact that Moira Shearer was already an internationally renowned dancer before she played the central role. Ludovic Kennedy saw her in the film and promptly copped off with her, soon to make her Lady Kennedy. She barely danced again afterwards, echoing depressingly, the dominating influence charismatic men have over the dancers in both movies.

Robert Helpmann who dances brilliantly with Shearer in the film, and who later played the sinister child catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ was also an excellent dancer who started out by touring with Anna Pavlova’s company and went on to dance with Fonteyn in The Royal Ballet. His unsettling elfin appearance always makes me feel that he surely must have been the inspiration for the look of Joel Grey’s emcee in ‘Cabaret’.

We’ve teamed up two films a few times before in the film club, but this was one of the best pairings – neither spoiling the other.

On a final note, have a gander at these great posters from La Boca for ‘Black Swan’:

4 posters

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