When The Red Shoes, the seventh collaboration by the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in as many years, was released in 1948, it was quite unlike anything audiences had seen before, even though it was constructed of parts that were quite familiar. There had been movies based on fairy tales. There had been movies that incorporated elements of backstage drama and romance. There had been movies with lengthy musical numbers. And there had been movies that had been shot in the magnificently lurid hues of three-strip Technicolor. Yet, in the hands of Powell and Pressburger, cinematic alchemists of the first order, The Red Shoes became something gloriously original and provocative—a truly groundbreaking fusion of reality and fantasy that helped pave the way for future musicals.
Based on an unproduced original screenplay that Pressburger had first concocted in the 1930s for producer Alexander Korda, The Red Shoes is essentially a love triangle in which a young dancer’s heart is torn between her intense love of her art and her equally intense desire for human love and companionship. The dancer is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a bright-eyed ingénue with great talent and potential who is swept under the wing of the Svengali-esque Boris Lermaontov (Anton Walbrook), an uncompromising ballet impresario who demands nothing less than total dedication from his dancers. We learn early on how uncompromising he is when he promptly dismisses his star dancer, Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tcherina), when he learns that she has gotten married because, in his mind, there is no room for “the doubtful comforts of human love.”
Boronskaja’s departure opens the door for Victoria, and she answers with a breakthrough performance in a new ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” which is about a vain, selfish girl who is punished by her favorite red shoes when they take on a life of their own. The fairy tale’s thematic connection to the film is clear, as the red shoes, which are literally embodied in a pair that Victoria wears on stage while dancing, become symbols of desire for celebration, fame, and adulation, all of which tempt Victoria to leave anything resembling a “normal” life. Yet, she is drawn into another kind of love with Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the young, headstrong composer of the very ballet that made her a star, and she is ultimately forced to choose between romance and dancing.
The story is pure melodrama, heightened via the already dramatic setting of the professional ballet, but it works, not least because the performers are so absolutely convincing in their roles. Walbrook’s Lermontov is a character for the ages, a man of such rigidity and uncompromising dedication to nurturing his art that he is simultaneously admirable and despicable, glorious and tragic, powerful and sad. The casting of Moira Shearer was a brilliant gamble because she was already a well-known professional dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, but had no acting experience. She turned out to be a natural in front of the camera, and seeing her actual face during the ballet sequences, rather than having to rely on a double, which necessarily entails compromising the sequences’ visual potential in order to hide the dancer’s identity, makes them all the more absorbing.
The centerpiece of The Red Shoes is the 15-minute depiction of “The Red Shoes” ballet, a visually stunning sequence that heightens the beauty of dance by marrying it to the vast possibilities of the cinema. Prior to this film, ballet had not been the subject of a major motion picture, possibly because it was deemed too “highbrow” for mainstream audiences, or possibly because other filmmakers didn’t recognize how it could be adapted to film without taking on the stiltedness of “canned theater.” Like Busby Berkeley, the great maverick choreographer of so many MGM musicals in the 1930s and ’40s, Powell and Pressburger, working with choreographer Robert Helpmann (who also plays the company’s flamboyant choreographer in the film) and production designer Hein Heckroth (who considered himself first and foremost a painter), did not limit themselves to the realities of a stagebound performance, but rather opened the ballet into the infinite possibilities of cinematic technique, which at its best is able to synthesize all art forms into a singular experience.
The stage becomes impossibly large and, while there is rigorous attention to the realities of the dancers’ physical feats, the performance is enhanced with visual tricks like stop-motion animation, dissolves, and superimpositions. “The Red Shoes” ballet sequence becomes, in effect, a subjective experience, less about the reality of how an audience in the theater might see it with their eyes and more about how they would expand it in their imagination. It’s a fantastic conceit, albeit one that works only in a limited form, which Powell and Pressburger demonstrated three years later with The Tales of Hoffman (1951), a curious, but ultimately failed experiment in translating a full-length opera to pure cinema.
Thus, like the best of films, The Red Shoes works on multiple, intersecting levels, drawing you into the fascinating backstage drama of an internationally renowned ballet company before unfolding a tragic love story that forces us to reckon with the all-consuming nature of art, which is most likely why successive filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg) have all cited this film as a singular inspiration in their desire to pursue cinematic careers. It is unfortunate that The Red Shoes was not better appreciated during its initial theatrical release (its distributor, J. Arthur Rank, loathed it, especially the lengthy ballet sequence, and refused to distribute it properly in Britain), but like all great works it has found an audience and taken its rightful place among the truly inspirational and groundbreaking.
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Overall Rating: (4)
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