I watched The Red Shoes principally because Black Narcissus, a 1947 film from the writer/director duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the former did the directing, the latter the writing), had so impressed me as to immediately become one of my favorite films in the collection. Black Narcissus is a brilliant film even despite a little bit of casual racism, and it’s brilliant for many of the same reasons that The Red Shoes, released a year later, is also a masterpiece: both films are melodramas on the surface, but dig a little deeper and both deal with extraordinary existential themes about how far we are willing to go and how much we are willing to sacrifice in the name of that which we hold to define us. In Black Narcissus, which concerns the lives of a group of nuns who move to the Himalayas, this defining quality is faith. In The Red Shoes, it is dance. Specifically, ballet.
It’s a tale as old as time, a dance as old as … mime? (I don’t know, it’s the only ballet-adjacent term I could find that rhymed). Anyway, the story concerns a young woman who desperately wants to be the greatest dancer in the world, the complicated manager who promises her stardom, and the talented composer who steals her heart — and forces her to choose.
At the center of this unfolding drama is Vicky Page, played by the fiery-haired Moira Shearer, who was a ballet dancer first, actress second. Not that this comes across in her performance, which is an extraordinary combination of nervous energy, raw talent, and melodramatic flair. She is flanked on either side by Anton Walbrook, as the mercurial impresario of the Ballet Lermontov, and Marius Goring, as a talented composer by the name of Julius Craster whose love affair with Vicky leads them both down a tragic path.
Walbrook is especially impressive here: Lermontov is a complicated figure, whose own motivations remain at times frustratingly opaque, and whose moods can switch easily from smugly satisfied to enraged. The one constant? His love — even worship — of dance. Indeed, as he says at one point, “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” One senses that he believes this because he himself is incapable of finding fulfillment elsewhere, and so believes that it must be true for all people; one senses that Lermontov has never loved, or loved once, perhaps, but had it taken from him. One senses these things, boiling just under the surface of Walbrook’s performance, and it is to his credit that we sense them at all, as the script leaves him a satisfying enigma.
None of the other characters has Lermontov’s complexity, but all have clearly defined motivation. Vicky,for instance, wants to be a dancer. Consider this dialogue from the beginning of the film, a famous exchange between the two:
BORIS LERMONTOV: Why do you want to dance?
VICTORIA PAGE: Why do you want to live?
BORIS LERMONTOV: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.
VICTORIA PAGE: That’s my answer too.
Lermontov is intrigued by this dancer who wants to dance as much as to live, and so takes her under his wing. She and Craster meet when he is asked to score a new ballet of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Red Shoes,” and Page is cast in the lead role.
“The Red Shoes,” if you know of it, is a story about a young woman who is forced by (you guessed it) some red shoes to dance until she dies. You probably don’t need me to tell you that this turns out to be a bit of foreshadowing.
The centerpiece of The Red Shoes, the movie, is “The Red Shoes,” the ballet, and it is absolutely, gobsmackingly stunning. The sequence itself is a little over fifteen minutes long — a fifteen minute ballet interlude, with no dialogue, and virtually no cuts to the audience. This would be daring enough on it’s own, but what takes it over the top is that Powell stages it as a surreal odyssey into a phantasmagoric realm that would be impossible to replicate on the actual stage — he has, in other words, staged a ballet that could only happen on film. It’s absolutely incredible, one of the grandest expressions of the singular magic of cinema that I can ever recall seeing. It may, in fact, be one of the single greatest scenes in all of film.
Is it any wonder that the film doesn’t have anywhere to go after this? To be fair, it’s not like what follows is bad. It’s actually quite good: unfortunately, it’s also fairly predictable. Perhaps The Red Shoes invented some of the tropes that are used here, but seeing a tortured artist forced to choose between love and her art is hardly a new story, even in the prehistoric time of the late 1940s. And anyway, the ballet sequence itself expresses all of this more powerfully and more forcefully than the rest of the film could possible hope to: it’s such a pure, visceral experience, that it proves almost the film’s undoing.
And yet, of course, it’s not undone. The Red Shoes remains, in the end, an incredible tour-de-force, a ravishing, thorough examination of how we choose to define who we are. Is Vicky a dancer? Is she a lover? Why does she feel she needs to choose? (Why in fact does she feel these are opposed?) How could she hope to? Lermontov and Craster ultimately come to represent the angel and the devil on her shoulder, and the ballet becomes heaven and hell all rolled into one. Perhaps it’s because she comes to feel trapped in this purgatory that the film ends the way it does — perhaps, when she finally takes off the red shoes, it’s a release from the pain of art … and the pain of love.
Aside from the plot and character stuff I discussed above, it must be said: The Red Shoes is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Seriously amazing cinematography, and an incredible transfer by Criterion — the Blu ray is a stunner. The film is a little overlong, and really does sag a bit after that incredible ballet, but overall this gets a very high recommendation. Great art of a high order.
Incidentally, this post is the first in my November series, which I am tentatively organizing around the theme of LOVE. The Red Shoes has some very important romance at the center of its story — the love between Vicky and Craster and, more importantly, the love between Vicky and ballet. The way in which these two romances collide forms the centerpiece of the film’s drama. I am obviously defining love rather loosely here.
Next time: Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece Chungking Express, followed shortly thereafter by his other masterpiece, and one of my personal favorite films, In the Mood for Love.