It seems to me that I’ve had a predilection for shots that break the fourth wall during this season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot. This week, our friend Nathaniel picked the Powell and Pressburger classic ballet saga The Red Shoes (which I had never seen, but am really happy I finally caught up with it) and I predictably chose the most obvious moment in which the movie uses visual iconography to to speak directly to the audience. Although in my defense, there are many moments in which the movie uses symbolism and winking visuals to let its audience in on the themes it is going for.
But let’s get into it. I don’t know if you will need a lot of context to appreciate the shot I picked. The movie is the story of a young woman who dreams of -and dances her ass off- in order to become a successful prima ballerina, and the conflicts that come with her strive to be successful and great on her own right. A metaphor for women’s taste of the self-actualization of professional work thanks to the labor shortage of World War II, perhaps? Or a tale of the prize that comes with success? Perhaps, but that would be an incredibly reductive way of looking at the movie. There is so much to unpack in this tale of conflicting passions, and the fact that the movie is so often indirect about what it’s about makes it all the more intriguing.
Now, that last sentence might sound like a contradiction after I said the movie uses symbolism to clarify its themes. Well, there are many levels to this movie. The first level is, as with most movies I’ve seen, the text. The second level is a level of subtext the film is comfortable letting us know about. It’s the level that lets us know what is going on inside the characters minds, and very often the one that hints at the fact that this is, in its core, a tragic story. The third level is what the movie is actually about and what it wants to say about society, which is the one that is most unclear, and the one I’ve been thinking about.
My pick for Best Shot plays off those two levels of subtext. It comes at the end of the movie’s standout sequence, the “Red Shoes ballet”. To say it is a great piece of filmmaking would be an understatement. I was expecting a great movie, but in that middle section, I encountered one of the very best pieces of filmmaking I had ever seen, and a contender for the best dance sequence in all of cinema history. Ok, that should cover my hyperbole quota. Let’s get back to it. The surreal ballet is based on the eponymous story by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a young woman puts on some magical red shoes that won’t let her stop dancing until she dies. The ballet also ends with the female protagonist dying, but as she breathes her last breath, the Shoemaker takes the red shoes off her feet, and returns to his shop…
Once there, the Shoemaker dances around with the shoes, and right before the curtain goes down, he holds them up to the camera, not only offering the shoes just like he offered them to the unfortunate woman, but daring us to take them.
Going back to those levels of subtext, and taking into account the fact that this is a tragic story, I assume that this is the filmmakers trying to warn the audience through temptation. However, not knowing exactly what the movie is trying to say beyond the sacrifices that come with success, I don’t know what I am being warned against. It’s this underlying uncertainty that makes this the most troubling and stirring moment in a tragic and complicated movie.