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The Red and the Black
by Summer Wood

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Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions...
Why do filmmakers think ballerinas are off their rockers? Or are the filmmakers the ones who actually have a tenuous grasp on reality? The success of BLACK SWAN made me ponder this question anew. And it recalled to my mind an old favorite, THE RED SHOES.

THE RED SHOES, the Archers' film made in 1948, and starring Moira Shearer, was a family favorite. It was a ballet film. I adored ballet films; in fact, I adored backstage theatrical films in general, since I wanted to perform in...well, something. But ballet films were a particular fav, although there weren't that many of them when I was a kid. THE RED SHOES was about it. Of course that made it special.

I have no idea why little girls, to a huge extent, love ballet. Many want to be ballet dancers. Many, like me, took ballet for years, before realizing that, ballerinas, like Westminster caliber German Shepherds, must conform to a very particular body type that approximately 150 people per generation have. It also took a while to realize that, to a large part, if you have the body type and the dance talent, you will be consigning yourself to a life of coffee, cigarettes, anorexia, sado-masochism, itchy leg warmers and no social life. I blame the attraction on the tiaras. Or the tulle. Yes, the tulle. Tulle is insidious.

I remember watching THE RED SHOES when I was little, with my Mom, since it was one of her favorite movies too. It was a great film for being home from school with the flu, since it was about three hours long, and set in a wintery London, making it the perfect film to watch while drinking tomato soup, a flu mainstay. And Vicky had red hair, further tying it to tomato soup, in my flu-addled mind. While watching it as a child, I experienced it as something of a head trip, long before I appreciated what a head trip was. That was due to the hallucinogenic dance sequences, where Vicky, the main character, works out her conflicting emotions between love, embodied by Julian, the young composer, and art, embodied by Lermontov, the charismatic impresario, by envisioning herself in the ballet of The Red Shoes. For anyone who remembers the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Red Shoes, you can already appreciate that none of this is going to end well for Vicky. It doesn't.

THE RED SHOES came back to me, when I saw BLACK SWAN. BLACK SWAN, being the hit it was only a couple of years ago, probably doesn't need much of an introduction, but it left me with a number of questions. Since
Lovely Plumage!

Lovely Plumage!
my questions probably represent spoilers to those who haven't seen the film, all fifteen of you who missed it may want to stop reading at this point, if you're still reading at all.

In BLACK SWAN, Nina, the technically flawless student and clear perfectionist, is under consideration for the lead role in Swan Lake. In that ballet, the princess Odette has been cursed by the evil magician Von Rothbart, so she must be a swan during the day and can only return to her human form at night. The curse cannot be lifted unless she finds true and flawless love, which she does when Prince Siegfried sees her. However, at the ball where Siegfried will declare his love for Odette and free her, Von Rothbart appears with his daughter Odile, disguised as Odette. The evil father and his manipulative daughter trick Siegfried, who is following in the footsteps of so many princes, by being completely clueless, into believing Odile is Odette and making his declaration to the wrong girl, thereby damning Odette to life as poultry.

Got it?

Since, traditionally, the same ballerina dances Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan, Nina must embody the perfect, pure virgin (which is a snap for her) and the seductive femme fatale (not so much). Thomas, the choreographer and all around louse, takes it upon himself to play mind-games with Nina, to get her to loosen up and embrace her sexy self. He should know that this is not a good idea, since movie ballerinas are always a few diet pills short of a full bottle. Clearly, Nina's attempt to fuse with her inner Black Swan has played bloody havoc with her sanity since she spends most of the movie, slipping into gory, disturbing hallucinations and out again. In one scene, her toes fuse together. It's harrowing, but it's a hallucination, so when she snaps back to reality, her feet are normal or normal for a ballerina again. Later, she sprouts black feathers as she dances the black swan. By the next scene, either she returns to reality or she molts, but the plumage is gone. So there's the yin-yang of "gross-gone" through the whole movie. Except...

SPOILER!!!! (Honestly, if you haven't seen the movie, stop reading now.)

Except the very end, which is where my question lies. At the end, as the ballet is being performed, Nina finds her rival (played by Mila Kunis, finally saved from the indignity of voicing Meg Griffin in FAMILY GUY) in the dressing room at intermission, preparing to go on as the Black Swan. In a
Real or not real?

Real or not real?
fit of jealousy, Nina attacks her by throwing her against a mirror and smashing it to shards. She then grabs one of the shards and stabs her rival, apparently to death. She then hides the body and returns to dance the second act. However, after she dances, the rival, fine and unpunctured, congratulates Nina on her performance. After the realization that her homicidal act was another hallucination, Nina looks down at her own midsection and sees she's bleeding in the place she stabbed her rival. In watching the movie, I took this vision as another hallucination. But, when Odette throws herself into the lake at the end of the ballet, Nina takes a dive (a swan dive, shall we say) off the stage and lands on her back on a crash pad. As Thomas and the other dancers gather around her, she appears to be dying and there is blood on the midriff of her white costume.

What the...?

My thought was, if the self-inflicted stab wound is a hallucination, the blood should have disappeared when the other people are gathered around her, since they would be seeing the reality. The gore would be gone when reality kicks in, right? However, if the wound and the blood are real, then all the spectators would be seeing it. That is what appears to be happening at the film's end. But if that is true, how was she able to dance the second act? Even more importantly, the woman was wearing white through a good part of that act wouldn't the audience have noticed the prima ballerina was bleeding like a frat boy in a slasher flick?

So the ending of BLACK SWAN was a mystery to me. Did Nina die? Did she live? Was she wounded and, if so, was the wound by her own hand? Or was it all a dream and she'll wake up to find Bobby Ewing in the shower?

Oddly, this inconsistency provides a link to THE RED SHOES. There, Vicky has sent her love away to live her dream of dancing. As she sits in her dressing room before the ballet begins, she realizes the error of denying love. So she runs from the theatre, wearing the red shoes (toe shoes, really, and, trust me, it would be easier to run in clown shoes than toe shoes), to the train station to stop Julian before he leaves her forever. As she gets there, they spot each other and Vicky, in her anxiousness, jumps from a balcony to the platform and falls in front of an oncoming train. Squish. As Vicky is dying in Julian's arms, she asks him to remove the red shoes, which ties Vicky's story in to the story of the Red Shoes ballet.

So, here's
Yeah, THAT can't happen on stage!

Yeah, THAT can't happen on stage!
the problem: at the beginning of the ballet, the main character is not wearing the red shoes. In fact, she sees them at the start of the ballet and desires them obsessively, which motivates her downward spiral. So, Vicky should not have been wearing the shoes at the time she was in the dressing room, preparing for the ballet to begin. Of course, if she hadn't been wearing the red shoes, they could not have been poignantly removed and the end of the movie would have been less artistically pat. So was she in fact wearing the shoes at the end, or was she hallucinating that she was wearing them?

So what do we take from a comparison between THE RED SHOES and BLACK SWAN? That all ballerinas are unhinged? That they range from hysterical, like Vicky, to frankly psychotic, like Nina? Or that the creators of ballet movies use their dancer characters as exquisite puppets and move them through their movies without much bothering with consistent character development? The last suggestion says something about how ballerinas are viewed in reality that they are pawns to the choreographers and the dance masters and mistresses, with their own artistry made secondary to another's notion of perfection. Watch any documentary on dance and you get the idea that the dancers, the female ones at least, are stripped of all power and really are used as set pieces. It really isn't much of a surprise that a lot of real ballerinas have reputations as prima donnas they don't have a lot of control over their professional lives and all that frustration must be vented some way.

These two movies frankly portray a cinematic truism that extends well beyond ballet movies even into action films and dramas that beautiful young women are often not real characters, but rather, ciphers that the filmmakers use as allegories. In THE RED SHOES and BLACK SWAN, the main characters become symbols proving that rejection of love or sex for art equates to madness and death. It's very similar to the film noir femme fatales were not characters so much as plot devices, indicating lust, that drove the heroes into danger.

So the dancers in both films were doppelgangers of the filmmakers. The dancers' trial, their inconsistencies, their losses of control and of sanity were symbolic of the writer's and director's own struggle with art versus the real lives. I think it may be safe to say the dancers aren't nuts, but their creators are a bit squirrelly.

Just don't get me started on SUSPIRIA...

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A Musing in Movieland
Every other Sunday

One woman's attempt to find meaning in movies, from movies, and between movies and to figure out why movies should matter to us, all while trying to find a laugh in the whole, screwy business."

Other Columns
Other columns by Summer Wood:

American Gods (With apologies to Neil Gaiman) Pt 2

American Gods (With apologies to Neil Gaiman) Pt 1

Most Beautiful Woman Alive!

The Jazzier Age?

Happy Easter, Doc!

All Columns

Summer Wood
I'm still cautiously optimistic that there really is a pattern to our lives and am striving to find mine, although I secretly suspect that life is really just about a Big, Space Baby. Which would be disappointing. And confusing. But, hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about it all, right? Philosophical stuff aside, I am an attorney, an artist and a performer and, if I could figure out a way to make the last two pay the bills, I'd dump the first one tomorrow.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Summer Wood by clicking here.

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