The Man Behind the Curtain
Color, Clothing, Camera and The Character of Boris Lermontov in ‘The Red Shoes’
As a screenwriter, my job is to write characters that are three-dimensional. I am constantly writing and rewriting to make sure my characters aren’t caricatures. Make ‘em real on the page like real people you’d meet on the street. It’s how the audience relates because they see themselves or someone they know in your characters. It’s the stuff of good literature and drama.
As a director I try to do the same thing, but there are so many different tools at a film director’s disposal. The choice of actor, story and plot are obvious. However, a director has other tools just as important to create mood, tone and ultimately a breathing human being on screen.
One of the best examples of this is the character of Boris Lermontov, the great ballet impresario in the Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1948 classic film ‘The Red Shoes’. If you haven’t seen ‘The Red Shoes’ it’s a treat and a feast for the eyes. The team of Powell and Pressberger creates the world of ballet like no other. This film was obviously a huge inspiration for the recent Darren Aronofsky’s “The Black Swan”. ‘The Red Shoes’ is the story of a woman torn between the man she loves and her passion for ballet. It’s based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name.
Now you might think the obvious choice is to focus on Victoria Page, the lead character, a ballet dancer at the center of the story, but my favorite character is not Vicky or her lover, Julian Craster, but the nemesis Boris Lermontov. Another of my favorite aspects of the film is Powell and Pressburger use of color, wardrobe and camera to reveal the character of Boris Lermontov.
The first time we see Lermontov, well we barely see him at all. It’s the beauty of cinematography. After a quick glimpse, the camera reveals only the hands of a man behind the curtain. He sits high above in a theater box, at a ballet, taking fastidious notes, gesturing “no” to an invitation to a patron’s party. In filmmaking, the director chooses what an audience sees and more importantly what an audience doesn’t see. And this director chose wisely, just a hand gesture tells it all, the complete dismissal of an arrogant impresario of the arts. The wardrobe reveals character, meticulously pressed sleeve of a black tuxedo, starched white cuffs and an expensive gold pinky ring, says it all. He is too important, too busy and too arrogant to attend such a trivial party. When convinced the patron is a financially vital donor to his ballet, he reluctantly agrees to attend the soiree. This is all done with virtually no dialogue.
At the party, we see him fully dressed in an immaculate tux, white shirt, white bow tie and a gold watch chain accenting it all. The tux is black and although others guest also wear black somehow Boris Lermontov’s black stands out. Lermontov is someone you don’t mess with, but our naive ballerina, Vicky is not afraid or intimidated. She confronts him head on regarding his refusal to permit her dance performance, which of course is really an audition. Lermontov is “spared such a horror”. Powell and Pressburger use of the color black in this film is like no other. And the camera circles around Lermontov at the party so subtly like a fan or a stalker. It’s a brilliant use of camera movement that makes you, the viewer, feel like an invited guest, just remember to keep your distant and fear Lermontov. Here camera, color, clothes and superior acting are used in a masterful way to convey character.
Later in the film, early in the morning we’re in Lermontov’s apartment, he reads his mail. The wardrobe choice is quite shocking. Dressed in robe with oriental, ornate and oddly embroider motif, he almost looks like a mannequin figure on display at a museum. The wardrobe reflects another time and another era. This is how wardrobe foreshadows story. Lermontov is from another era; he can’t accept the new, the young and the furture. Lermontov’s wardrobe includes beige slippers, the choice is a bit odd and somewhat comical, but again reveals character. At home, the man is not only an impresario but an artist as well. The wardrobe reflects an artistic, brooding yet eccentric man, not just concerned with business but a man of the arts. The colors reflect character as well; muted and subtle the color reveals a thinker, pensive and sensitive. It’s a brilliant choice because we see the eccentricity and perhaps a little of the ‘crazy’ and mentally disturbed side of this genius. Although the camera shoots from above and looks down on Lermontov as he eats breakfast, Lermontov is insouciant and above it all. The young composer, Julian, is so frustrated that he is about to walk out but is enticed by a job offer and is drawn into the web of this controlling impresario. The web is created with color, clothing, camera movement and of course, the great acting of Anton Walbrook.
The most powerful scene of Lermontov’s comes during the third act of the film. Lermontov is completely side swiped by his protégé, Vicky, and the young ambitious composer, Julian’s marriage. He becomes insanely jealous and as Vicky puts it a ‘monster’. Lermontov plays the jilted ‘lover’. We see him in a scarlet red velvet smoking jacket, which almost matches the velvet window curtains caging him in and the curtains are reminiscent of stage curtains seen at the theater. This is not just any red! This is red that will make your blood boil. The actor Anton Walbrook gives a stellar performance depicting the very intimate moments of a proud man who pines over the loss a young woman. We rarely see such a scene, a powerful man who is so vulnerable and so deeply hurt. Tortured, Lermontov’s literally shatters himself to pieces with self-hate and loathing. The color blood red and the way he tears open the red jacket revealing a white tee shirt, yes the impresario like every man wears a simple white tee shirt underneath the expensive clothing. That simple wardrobe choice somehow expresses his humanity, he’s just another ‘jilted’ lover like many of us. The flash of yellow in the lining exposes a man who is really a coward. He’s conniving, jealous and petty and Lermontov let’s other do his dirty work. This is the ‘real’ man behind the curtain. Oh, one other wardrobe accessory that has to be noticed. Please don’t miss the sunglasses.
Oh, those shades! Lermonotov’s wears them at critical moments in the film. You can feel the anger and hurt hidden behind the dark glasses. The impresario does have feelings but he is too arrogant and proud to show them so he hides behind the glasses until the end of the film but unfortunately, it is too late.
So in filmmaking remember color, clothing and camera and how these three elements can create character along with a brilliant performance by a screen actor.