Scarlet Sails

anastasiya-vertinskaya-as-assol-in-scarlet-sails-1961-film-by-alexander-ptushko-3-500x262

If you have a dream and someone learns of the conditions of that dream and sets out to fulfill them in a way that also benefits themselves, is that reward or exploitation? And if that dream was a solace but also a source of ridicule and estrangement, is it a good thing in and of itself, or is the good dependent upon the outcome? These are interesting questions to ask of Scarlet Sails, but doing so might ruin it, and that would be a shame because it’s a very charming movie.

Scarlet Sails (Alye parusa) tells the story of Assol, who, at a tender young age, meets a self-proclaimed wizard who tells her that one day, when she is grown, she will be whisked away by a prince who arrives on “a beautiful ship under scarlet sail.” Fast forward a few years, and said prince is supplied by Arthur Grey (not Christian, that would be a different fairy tale), who trades in his birthright for a difficult but rewarding merit-based life at sea. “Supplied” is the key word, for when Arthur hears about Assol’s prophecy, he makes a conscious decision to make it come true. He orders a couple thousand yards of red fabric for the sails and even hires a band to accompany his arrival. It works too. Vasiliy Lanovoy, who plays Grey and looks a bit like Jean Marais, is about as handsome as they come, and Anastasia Vertinskaya would melt anybody’s heart.

As a fairy tale, Scarlet Sails is slyly self-aware. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing fantastical in it; moreover, Asso’s narrative is contrasted with that of her father’s, whose fortunes are decidedly more naturalistic. When Assol tells him of her encounter with the wizard, he is glad for the comfort his daughter will receive but knows the harshness of reality will likely intrude upon it. It does too, quickly, in the form of the beggar who would have her disturbed from her sleep that he might have his handout of tobacco.

If we put ourselves in the place of the peacefully sleeping Assol, the author and/or director in the place of her father, and life itself in the place of the beggar, the scene becomes a pretty good metaphor for fairy tales themselves. These stories, like Grey’s arrival, are tinged with deceit. But the intent is to bring comfort and to shield us a bit from the storm, and so long as we don’t get Quixotic about it, that can’t be a bad thing. When Assol pushes her way through the crowd to meet her handsome prince, I’m not thinking about how she’s being manipulated by Grey any more than I’m thinking about how I’m being manipulated by the story. It’s heartwarming. Very heartwarming, actually. I’ll take it.

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