The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes is a truly remarkable film, and also one of my favorites. It is at once a backstage drama and a fairy tale, and the most famous film of producing, writing, and directing partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as the Archers.  With their signature magic, passion, and wit, the Archers show in The Red Shoes what it is to be an artist.

The film fittingly begins with the opening of a new ballet. A young composer in the audience, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), notices that the new ballet contains work that has been stolen from him by his professor. He brings this to the attention of the director of the ballet company, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who does little to correct the theft but does offer Craster a job. Lermontov brings in another young artist, the dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). The two quickly rise through the ranks of the company, becoming the stars of a new ballet, The Red Shoes, with Julian composing the score and Vicky dancing the principle part. When a romance develops between Vicky and Julian, the demanding and controlling Lermontov feels that their talents have diminished and he has little use for them. He drives them away out of jealousy, and while Julian can still compose elsewhere, Vicky is torn between her decision to give up her dreams of being a great dancer in Lermontov’s company and merely being a good dancer in others.

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The events and themes in the film closely mirror those of the ballet The Red Shoes,based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson. Anyone familiar with Black Swan will recognize the premise; the comparisons between the two great ballet films are inescapable. In the story, a girl buys a pair of enchanted red shoes that force her to keep dancing, tearing her away from a normal, happy life. She is only free from the red shoes in death, but still the shoemaker is ready for another victim. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for Vicky. The dramatic irony induced by the similarities between the ballet and life is crucial to the success of the film. It is apparent that Vicky is doomed, making it seem all the more inevitable. Though she ostensibly has a choice to stop dancing, we know, and Lermontov knows, that that can never happen.

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Without a doubt, the film’s most famous sequence and also its highlight is The Red Shoes ballet itself.  Powell and Pressburger essentially put the breaks on the plot for an extended dance sequence, something that was unheard of at the time, though it became quite the fashion afterwards. The number is a short version of what the Archers achieved with The Tales of Hoffmann: a composed film. The images follow the music, without the encumbrance of dialogue. As with The Tales of Hoffmann, the ballet contains many trick shots: a knife turns into a branch and then back into a knife, a newspaper turns into a man and back again, shadows reach out for Vicky, Vicky and the rest of the dancers move through fantastical landscapes seamlessly, and are transformed into flowers and clouds when they are lifted up. The most revealing of all is when the dominant figure of the shoemaker turns into the controlling image of Lermontov, then a just as controlling image of Julian. This simple imagery is the film’s first explicit statement of the film’s central conflict. As the whole dance can be seen as an illustration of Vicky’s point of view, it shows how emotions are clarified through artistic expression; she is not aware she is trapped until she is dancing on opening night.

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Julian’s and Lermontov’s traps are both very frightening. While Julian undoubtedly thinks more of her than Lermontov does, Lermontov makes some incredibly good arguments against him. It must be remembered that Julian is an artist as well, and he gets to pursue his form of artistic expression while Vicky is ripped away from hers. When they leave the company and return to England, Julian is still a well known young composer and continues his rise to fame with a new opera. Vicky however, never receives the same treatment that Lermontov gave her. She is just a regular dancer. That can hardly be Julian’s fault, but at the same time, no matter who she goes with she is the one forced to give something up.

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Lermontov is without a doubt the film’s most enigmatic and mysterious character. It’s clear that he has a need to control the artists that work under him, and he is not satisfied with anything less than one hundred percent of their loyalty. Or is he? After Vicky leaves, he brings back Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina), who had previously left to get married. Then he pursues the married Vicky after a few years. Does he have a change of heart? It is unclear what exactly motivates him. Though he can seem considerate on occasion, mostly he is distant and cold, or terrifyingly possessive. While watching the film, I’ve always wondered exactly what he does in the ballet company; he passes judgement on the work of others but offers little else creatively. It seems that he whole job is just to find talented artists and help them do what they do. Why does he love ballet so much in the first place, what does he get out of it? We’ll never know, and that’s part of the draw of this film. Walbrook’s is the best out of the pack of excellent performances.

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Finally, there is art itself, and its relationship to life. Are the two mutually exclusive? The characters in the film seem to think so, especially Lermontov. In Vicky’s case they undoubtedly are. However, Julian seems to have blended the two as successfully as one could hope, because with people that dedicated it’s never going to be easy. When pondering these questions, I always get philosophical. What is art without life? Lermontov, demanding strict loyalty and obedience, what does he expect his artists to be expressing? Wouldn’t their expressions have to come out of something that has been lived? And how can they do that if they are not allowed to live their own lives? There are more questions than answers, and that’s the beauty of this wonderful film.

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“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes go on.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review
The Best Picture Project review

Essay by David Ehrenstein for the Criterion Collection

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4 responses to “The Red Shoes

    • Thank you, and yes! See this movie as soon as possible. It’s essential for any film fan, and it’s a great movie as well.

    • And with good reason! I don’t rank it quite as highly but it is one of my favorites as well. I hope you get to see it, it really is a great film.

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