The Red Shoes (1948)

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Written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Brilliant ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) falls in love with arrogant composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) during the production of the ballet that makes them both stars, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Red Shoes. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is the aloof taskmaster who runs their ballet company, who plucked them both out of relative obscurity to cultivate their undeniable and considerable talent, and who is infuriated when the couple gets distracted by romance when he has forbidden his artists to get into such entanglements. In the end, Vicky is forced by Julian to choose between art and love, which leads to her tragic end.

This is one of the Great Films that deserves all the praise and analysis it gets. It’s a melodrama and a fantasy. It takes the very real backstage dramas, the complex, hard-to-manage personalities and backbreaking, frantic work needed to get a quality production off the ground, and mixes that realism with lush Technicolor and a surreal, expressionist, stunning special effects-laden 15+ minute ballet full of symbols for Vicky’s desire, sacrifice and limitless potential, the irresistible lure of the slippers for someone talented enough to wear them, and the pull of the two men that represent her life paths.

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“Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.” Vicky’s fate is foretold the moment Lermontov recounts that fairy tale basis for his dearest ballet, about the magic slippers that never tire and drive their wearer to “dance and only dance” to their death. Vicky chooses over and over to wear them, from the moment she meets Lermontov and answers his question “why do you want to dance” with a kindred passion: “why do you want to live?” She accepts that pure art demands a rejection of lesser, doubtful mortal comforts like love, she enters the bargain with this diabolical mentor, is created as a star by enacting the fairy tale and her death on stage, and returns to this role after marrying Julian, who looks down on ballet and wants her to reject the mentor that rejected him. Shearer does a fine job taking us on this journey with her and expressing the character’s enthusiasm, joy and pain. 

Lermontov’s part in this love triangle isn’t about being jealous, or wanting Vicky the selfish way Julian does, or even wanting Julian. What Lermontov wants is artists with this much potential to give their all to him, his vision and his guidance because he’s the very best in the world at what he does and will guide them to their best work. There are glimpses of Lermontov’s vulnerability and deep affection for Vicky, and he can’t conceal his dejection when he learns of their romance the very night he seems ready to express to her something more intimate than professional admiration. Otherwise Lermontov keeps tight guard on any emotions unrelated to organizing his productions. He saves his passion for hand picking, weeding and corralling all these fragile and oversized egos, toiling at their respective areas of expertise. He would be content to have Vicky working at her full potential, even if it meant forever keeping romantic distance. Anton Walbrook conveys all this, plus an almost comical eccentricity and snobbery, a rude detachment and a tendency toward bullying, so skilfully that Lermontov becomes not only a sympathetic figure but every bit as tragic as Vicky.

The words colourful or beautiful don’t begin to describe Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and Hein Heckroth’s art direction. If dancing is life and ballet is religion, then this film’s aesthetic is beauty and cinema. No wonder Heckroth won the Oscar (as did Brian Easdale for the score). Other than the ballet, many other sequences are wonderful: the students’ excited race into the theater, Vicky ascending the steps to Lermontov’s Monte Carlo villa, dressed like a princess and entering her fairy tale, Julian introducing the music he’s written for the Red Shoes, and the couple bonding as they lean over the balcony and watch a train speed by below. Though you sense the story can only end one way, it’s scenes like those that allow the characters to live and breathe in the movie and in the viewer’s memory.

The Red Shoes is one of my 10 Classics to watch in 2015 and I timed this viewing to join Laura, who was lucky to see it for the first time a few days ago when a restored print was screened at UCLA.

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7 thoughts on “The Red Shoes (1948)”

  1. Hi Kristina,

    I loved reading your piece! And you calling it one of the Great Films. The more I thought of the movie yesterday, the more important it seemed — it’s almost like I had one reaction watching it and then also a delayed impact as I realized how much it had taken hold of my imagination and how I continued to dwell on it hours after watching it. Something about the combination of the film’s mood and colors has taken hold and not let go, even going on close to 48 hours later.

    I’m so glad we could enjoy this masterwork the same weekend!!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. I agree, it’s engrossing and stunning on so many levels — another movie you can go on about, take the scenes apart etc. I really enjoyed the FX in the ballet sequence: the newspaper man, the audience disappearing and being replaced by crashing waves, so and so on. Thanks for the invite to see it at the same time, now I have to tackle the rest of my 10!

  2. I don’t know. I’ve never had any interest in watching “The Red Shoes.” Perhaps I’ll have to force myself one day. I’ve started watching, but never given it my full attention.

    1. I never got around to it because I’m not into ballet at all, but the full performance and the prep impressed me more than I expected, and the “deal with the devil” was a good angle. It works as a story about any kind of art or achievement. Agree with Laura that something this pretty would be ideal to experience on the big screen. Give it a whirl just for the visuals.

  3. Stephen, I was pleasantly surprised, I had always kind of wondered if I would like it or not. I love dance but thought it seemed like a strange downer. But I figured I’d give it a try in the best conditions possible (big screen 35mm). Turned out to be so worth it! I’d love to know what you think if you give it a shot sometime.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  4. Nice discussion of The Red Shoes, though, I must admit that the more I see it, the more I feel that it’s a bit overrated, but just a bit.

    What’s interesting is that this film was a the inspiration behind one of my favorite British musical artists. Kate Bush released an album called The Red Shoes in 1993 and also made a short film inspired by this film. Here’s the music video for the song The Red Shoes which is definitely inspired by the film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zB_kgWpC5o

    Tam

    1. I remember this 🙂 thanks! This is has to be one of the most influential films on filmmakers and other creatives, over the years have often come across things borrowed from or being inspired by the RS visuals, even as far away as Raging Bull. Thanks

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