By pure serendipity, two magnificent movies about ballet—one fiction, one fact; one a restored classic, one a brand-new work making its U.S. premiere—open within 48 hours of each other at Film Forum this week. Frederick Wiseman’s vérité La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet offers a portrait of suppleness and agility—not just that of the dancers’ bodies, but also of the august institution of the title. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece, The Red Shoes, feverishly explores the demands of art at the expense of personal life. “Why do you want to dance?” asks imperious artistic director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) to ballerina hopeful Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), who can answer only with another question: “Why do you want to live?” Both films offer us the extraordinary experience of watching the burning commitment to perfection.
Like all of his documentaries, La Danse, Wiseman’s 38th film and his second on ballet (1995’s Ballet captured the American Ballet Theater), forgoes voiceover and identifying intertitles, allowing for spectators’ full immersion into the action within the walls of the Palais Garnier, the 19th-century, neo-Baroque opera house where the company rehearses and performs, while also demanding that we pay closer attention, with none of nonfiction film’s usual cues to guide us. Wiseman and his cinematographer, John Davey, track the development of seven ballets, ranging from Rudolf Nureyev’s more traditional The Nutcracker Suite to the avant-stylings of Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice. With so many moving parts, the repetition of certain faces and first names heard during jetés and pliés serves to anchor viewers (particularly those who, like this writer, know little about ballet). Mats is the lanky, bespectacled sexagenarian choreographer guiding, among others, Laetitia (one of the étoiles of the corps) during rehearsal for The House of Bernarda Alba. Others become indelible simply by what they say: “She imagines an arabesque where there is none,” sniffs one choreographer.
Roughly two-thirds of La Danse is devoted to rehearsal and performance, shot in deeply satisfying long takes of gorgeous young men and women starting, stopping, listening, questioning, repeating, perfecting. The rest is behind the scenes, and as Wiseman shows empty corridors, the many types of grains available in the cafeteria of the Palais Garnier, sewing rooms, and the nightly clean-up of the 2,200-seat theater, the stealth star of La Danse emerges: Brigitte (Lefèvre), the company’s tremendously composed, elegant artistic director. Shown in a meeting discussing the finer distinctions between “benefactors” and “big benefactors,” as the company prepares to welcome a contingent of “American friends” (including a lunch with . . . Lehman Brothers), Lefèvre nimbly tackles the potential messiness—but absolute necessity—of crass commerce fueling high art. When not administrating, Lefèvre seems happiest as a maternal martinet, reminding one new student, “To do is the most important.”
It’s advice that Moira Shearer’s Vicky Page, flame-haired like Lefèvre, has made her credo in The Red Shoes—as did Powell and Pressburger in their 10th collaboration. “You go too far,” the film’s original art director, Alfred Junge, told Powell about the brilliant, eye-popping design, seen here in a ravishing new 35mm Technicolor restoration. (Junge was soon replaced with the painter Hein Heckroth as production designer.) And The Red Shoes turns out to be one of the greatest explorations of going too far in the name of creative mastery.
Vicky is begrudgingly admitted into Lermontov’s troupe, soon becoming its star while falling in love with the equally driven young composer, Julian (Marius Goring). Powell and Pressburger, much like Wiseman, find as much drama and beauty backstage as on-, their delirious spectacle culminating in the 17-minute dance of the title, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s morbid tale of ballet slippers that drive the wearer to dance to her death. Dance, girl, dance: Shearer, a performer with Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet), took a year before agreeing to make her film debut at 21. Her auspicious bow in the seventh art would become ballet’s most memorable depiction in film.