The Red Shoes: Against Realism

“Why do you want to dance?”

“Why do you want to live?”

This exchange between an obsessive impresario and a strong-willed ballerina is the heart of The Red Shoes; the most beautiful film I have ever seen. I could begin to wax poetic about its painterly cinematography and all its other noteworthy elements – production design, acting, special effects, etc. – but I won’t; not yet at least. For the beauty of this film, to me, lies somewhere else. It is in that very exchange I mentioned earlier.

It’s a quote that may seem odd at first glance. Why should an art form, such as the ballet you may think, be elevated to life or death status? This is the main question I have pondered when I have watched this film; a Technicolor picture released in 1948, and written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Whenever the subject of filmmaking partnerships is seldom brought up, the Coen Brothers, usually and rightfully so, are the go-to example. More though should be familiar with the British-Hungarian filmmaking partnership, Powell and Pressburger. The most notable fruits of their collaboration were made during the 1940’s in Britain. During this time, they created a slew of masterpieces. Films such as The Life and Death of Colonel BlimpA Matter of Life or Death, and Black Narcissus were fascinatingly subversive – and sometimes controversial – films made during Britain’s film-making golden age. This period included Oliver Twist, The Third Man, Brief Encounter, Henry V, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and the Powell and Pressburger films – classics that go a long way in defining British cinema.

Out of all these justly famous films, The Red Shoes, in addition, is the most artful and subversive. It is possibly The Archers’ (the name of Powell and Pressburger’s production company) greatest accomplishment.

The premise of the story, at first glance, may seem common enough. It’s a film about the backstage life of a ballerina; a subject which, even if there are not too many films about the ballet, there are surely plenty of movies about the behind-the-scenes life of a movie production or play for instance. Nevertheless, the young ballerina, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), is determined to become a star ballet dancer. In her search for stardom, she is noticed by an imposing, but elegant impresario named Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). She wins a position, as does a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), who had only come to Lermontov’s attention by complaining that his composition had been stolen by the company’s conductor.

When the head ballerina announces her engagement, Lermontov, for fear of losing control – and worried that the dancer will not be devoted anymore to the “religion” that is the ballet –  fires her. Lermontov creates a new ballet, and Vicky is given the lead part and Craster the score. Opening night is in three weeks.

The ballet is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s called The Red Shoes. Boris Lermontov, marvelously played by Anton Walbrook, summarizes the story so:

It is the story of a girl who who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on… In the end, she dies.

Of course, the script, primarily written by Emeric Pressburger, is also marvelous. The script works on multiple levels. But the one point I should mention for right now is the conflict of interests between the trio of Vicky, Lermontov and Craster. Craster loves Vicky, and Vicky loves Craster. He loves her as a person; he wants her soul. But Lermontov loves her as a perfect, physical embodiment of his sacred devotion to the ballet. Since Lermontov is a homosexual, he wants her body not out of sexual lust, but through the knowledge that he knows no one else can wear the red shoes in his greatest creation, led by his greatest discovery, Vicky. And this is the decision that Vicky must make: whether she wants to continue to wear the red shoes, or continue her romance with Craster. It literally becomes a life or death decision.

At the crux of this decision is the enigmatic Boris Lermontov. Played by the too under-appreciated Austrian actor, Anton Walbrook, his performance deserves to be highlighted. One of the great strengths of the Powell and Pressburger films is the talented array of actors that are often showcased. Walbrook was a great casting choice, and he near perfectly encapsulates the essence of the control freak, Boris Lermontov; an impresario with an almost religious devotion to the ballet, and a God-like sense of entitlement. When told he cannot change human nature, he retorts, “you can do better, you can ignore it completely.” Lermontov’s world, in which he glides through with perfect manners that mask his contempt, is all about his source of meaning in life: the ballet, and thus his pawn, Vicky.

Played by Moira Shearer, Michael Powell would later remark on her beauty by saying, “her cloud of red hair, as natural and beautiful as any animal’s, flamed and glittered like an autumn bonfire.” As far as his films go, Powell had a penchant for redheads, and Shearer was no less an exception. She was, in real life, an actual ballet dancer, and it shows in the film. A consummate actress and dancer with an air of naivete about her, who, despite The Red Shoes being her first film appearance, was so successful on screen partially because she was a natural.

But, beyond controlling impresarios and devoted ballerinas, there’s another reason why The Red Shoes is a film classic, and it has much to do with a 15 minute sequence in the film that tested and stretched the capability of film as an art form in 1948. It is the ballet sequence of The Red Shoes. Photographed by Jack Cardiff, a cinematographer whose credits include classics such as Black Narcissus and The African Queen, but also pectoral epics like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Conan the Destroyer; the sequence is, in short, astonishing. Here, the enchanting palette of Technicolor is rendered with the utmost care, imagination, and painterly sophistication. I would even dare to say its utilization in the hands of Cardiff is Technicolor at its apex. There are few films I can think of that could possibly better it. Possibly Jean Renoir’s The River is more artful in its handling of Technicolor. Of course, this all goes without mentioning Cardiff’s other two collaborations with Powell and Pressburger, A Matter of Life or Death and Black Narcissus – films which contain successive images that, due to their sheer pictorial quality, are more comparable to the color and style that only a top-notch painting could seemingly achieve.

The director, Michael Powell, told his crew that, since the war was over, to “shoot the works.” It was in this environment of liberation that The Red Shoes was made – and it shows. The surreal vistas conjured up by the art director, Hein Heckroth, served as the fantastical backdrops for the dreamlike ballet sequence. The doomed ballerina dances among the descending cellophane, intermingling with bohemian hordes, and swirling through the ecstatic, painterly light; all of which is underpinned by a pulsating musical score. But what makes this sequence so shocking in its audacity and virtuosity, is the way the viewer is left to see it.

Of course, one bathes in the splendor, but this sequence is seen from a particular point of view. It is primarily seen through the point of view of Vicky Page, the ballerina and protagonist. Think of it this way: Powell and Pressburger could have easily depicted the ballet through the eyes of the audience. Except, they didn’t do that. In fact, the only time the viewer is able to know that there is an audience is before the second act, when Vicky can hear the rapturous applause emanating from the seats. By representing the main sequence of the film in such a manner, the viewer is readily able to see the ballet through the eyes of the lead character. The action is not just an acknowledgement of a reality the viewer ought to know (i.e. shots of the audience), but visualization of the mind of the dancer (or artist) and the creative act. When Vicky sees the seats for an ocean, and hears the applause as waves crashing against the rocks, or takes a dancer for a spiraling newspaper; then it should hopefully become apparent how bold this film was in 1948. Not only that, in The Red Shoes, there is the world onstage and the world backstage. Two illusions are being dealt with at once; both with considerable artistry. I’m tempted to say this all makes many other current film classics look criminally unadventurous in comparison.

Even if most filmmakers have not ventured into such artistic territory, nevertheless, the film did have an effect on other filmmakers. Gene Kelly, the famed movie star dancer, and athletic counterpoint to Fred Astaire’s debonair ballroom tap dancing; had screened The Red Shoes several times for bigwigs at MGM. He wanted to include a lavish ballet sequence like in the film. The studio executives were right to be wary, for The American in Paris ballet sequence in Kelly’s beloved An American in Paris; became an expensive part of the film set to the music of George Gershwin. In contrast to The Red Shoes, Kelly’s lively copy of the ballet sequence is overtly elaborate in its efforts to bridge high art and popular music; perhaps the Impressionist decor is too obvious with the film’s connection to Paris. The nature of the ballet is just not nearly as expertly crafted as in The Red Shoes. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable Hollywood musical. In fact, I do value its charming Gershwin numbers and adventurousness. Compared to its highly publicized counterpart, Singin’ in the Rain, I find it the more surprising picture.

Though, what is surprising about The Red Shoes is maybe too unnoticed, and too unheralded. In titling this essay, The Red Shoes: Against Realism, I hope it doesn’t seem too academic for the sake of just being esoteric. For, mainly, I should dislike to be seen as academic, but also because this film is definitely – I almost want to say, defiantly – anti-realist.

It’s peculiar, because The Red Shoes was released in 1948, not far after the war. Knowledge of this period in film history would show that, to not respond (indirectly or directly) to the effects of war, would have been quite drastic. I think of, say, Italian neorealism, with its bleak depiction of Italian life. Even Hollywood in all its pulp glow could not resist the saturation of the world weary, alienated anti-heroes of film noir. Arising from a Britain that was once engulfed in nocturnal aerial attacks and the ensuing rubble, The Red Shoes must have initially appeared like some wild dream to audiences.

But it’s partially why I love this film. From the shot of the waxy, flaming candle in the opening credits, to the crazed eyes of the ballet dancer at the end; The Red Shoes is a truly beautiful film. It tears apart conventional standards of film-making – new and old – and does not settle for anything less than capturing a sense of cinematic wonder, or, more simply put: magic. It’s a balancing act of well crafted, multi-layered illusions; the filmmakers as creators of the film itself, the plot that mirrors the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale; Lermontov’s creation of the ballet; and, of course, the actual ballet.

In admiring The Red Shoes, there’s also another poignant reason why this is such a great and unique film. I began this essay by calling attention to an exchange between Lermontov and Vicky. It is, I feel, maybe more so than the ballet sequence, the heart of the film. Lermontov asking, “why do you want to dance” could just as well be a producer asking Powell and Pressburger, “why do you want to make a film?” Why this film? Well, “why do you want to live?”

It’s that do-or-die attitude towards art that I greatly admire about The Red Shoes. For that reason, it’s why there’s no other film I would feel more confident in citing as an example of cinema’s capability as an art, pitted right up against other art forms. Indeed, it wonderfully intertwines with fine art. The Red Shoes is as emotional and necessary as a Van Gogh masterpiece.


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