the red shoes: a (sugar) cubist perspective

Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes.

Do you remember your first encounter with sugar cubes, as a kid? They were magic, right? Perfectly square and glowing white, they could be stacked like Legos or popped on the tongue, one at a time, until the corners fuzzed and they broke.

In our house, sugar was nearly verboten. We’d go to friends’ homes, pull open their cabinets and gaze adoringly at bags of Oreos, like sweet-toothed, big-eyed basset hounds. So I remember quite clearly when my elder sister had to make an Egyptian pyramid. Out of sugar cubes. For class. This struck me as a project very much in need of a supervisor. I gallantly took upon the role of producer, assistant director and grip. Anyplace that pyramid was, I was, delivering structural advice and stealing as many cubes as would fit into my little pockets.

You forget about sugar cubes as an adult until you see them in some Euro-style café, and it’s so lovely when you do. (These days I use agave for my coffee since it doesn’t make my blood sugar go racing, which I learned while working on this book). But I miss the luxury of them, which is why I so appreciated an early scene in “The Red Shoes,” currently playing at Film Forum in New York. It’s a gorgeous movie — ostensibly about ballet, but really about obsession — with enough color, punch and chutzpah to make Fellini blush. Film critics are calling the new Technicolor print “sumptuous,” “delirious” and “life-changing.” For critics, they’re not mincing words. Though I’m a purely amateur filmgoer, I was for the first time in my life that obnoxious theatergoer who said, “Wow,” aloud, at a poppingly blue dress.

One of my favorite scenes was, naturally, centered around food. We’ve just met the French ballet director, Lermontov. We know he’s a snob and that he’s a man of few words, but we don’t know much more. Then we witness him calmly interviewing — in his dressing gown, natch — a tremulous undergraduate music student over his Continental breakfast.

Lermontov has his cup of black coffee in one hand, a solitary sugar cube in the other. While speaking to the student, maintaining eye contact all the while, he dips the corner of the cube into the coffee. We see it change color, pinched between his thumb and forefinger. It doesn’t burst. He delivers his final line, the student walks out, and he pops the soaked cube in his mouth, finally taking a sip of coffee. It is the height of audacity that he thought the cube would not crumble without his permission — and the best bit of foreshadowing I’ve seen in a long time.

The flick ends on November 19th. If you’re local, go see itbefore it does.

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