Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressbuger
DP: Jack Cardiff
Editor: Reginald Mills
Score: Brian Easdale
Producer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Léonide Massine
Distribution: General Film Distributors
Length: 2 hrs. 14 mins.
The Red Shoes makes sure we know where the characters are, but does not bother to create a strong sense of place; for a film that travels all over the globe, it feels strangely insular. We remain with the members of the Ballet Lermontov.. We see them backstage or in private spaces, in modes they expose to each other but not to the public eye. They share a rapport that isn’t entirely comprehensible to outsiders.
This insularity plays a major role in making The Red Shoes a great entertainment; the film introduces us to a foreign, exclusive world full of eccentric characters and slowly draws us in. The high-class decor and the sumptuous color cinematography make that world especially attractive. It eases us into something unusual and makes it seem like a privileged benefit.
But was that really such a good idea?
The Red Shoes is a melodrama: the characters' actions and emotions are amplified beyond what we would expect from the factors we can easily see. This is at the heart of the tragedy in the film's final act. For me, the greatest intrigue of The Red Shoes lies in the strange inconclusiveness of its tragedy, the way it darkly lingers in the viewer's mind long after the film's end.
What do we see that contributes to this ominous ending? The characters' private rapport revolves around the impresario, Boris Lermontov. Lermontov is a mystic of art, describing ballet as his “religion,” and he demands his artists treat it as such. There can be no compromises; if a dancer struggles with the tempo of the music, she must simply learn to dance faster.
When Boronskaya announces her intention to leave the Ballet Lermontov to get married, Lermontov treats her with extreme coldness, much to her chagrin. He is not subtle. He says: "You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love can never hope to be a great dancer. Never." Yet when Boronskaya meets him again, she's happy and excited to work with him again.
Indeed, Lermontov’s relationship with his artists, and the artists’ relationships among themselves, are mostly genial. They enjoy each other’s company (and all, with the exception of conductor Livingstone, share a nationality), and Lermontov even designates them his “family.” After Boronskaya leaves, he does more than hire a replacement; he commissions a ballet that reflects his own beliefs about art – The Ballet of the Red Shoes – and casts the replacement in the lead role. The new prima ballerina, Victoria Page, is almost ceremonially inducted into the Lermontov “family.
In Victoria's introduction, her aunt treats both her and her art like commodities, devices to win aristocratic favor. Victoria wins Lermontov over not by dancing but by telling him her reasons for dancing are totally different from those suggested by her aunt. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks; Victoria responds: “Why do you want to live?”
So it's not too surprising, given her background, that Victoria says that her biggest obstacle as a dancer is that she imagines a “war with the audience” whenever she’s on stage. The film makes us experience this when she performs in Lac des Cygnes: when she dances, the film cuts from her to a series of abrupt, lurching camera movements that settle on the audience, to disconcerting effect.
What eventually alleviates her stress is the intimate bond between artists that transcends national borders. Her collaborators on The Ballet of the Red Shoes reassure her, pulling her focus away from the audience and onto the art itself. The result is mind-bending and hallucinatory. For fifteen minutes, the film leaves its reality behind for a world of psychedelic, melting landscapes. The film makes subtle, nearly imperceptible use of slow motion to extend the leaps in Victoria’s dance, making them lighter and freer. When the audience applauds, they are swallowed by an ocean that floods the auditorium, the sound of their applause subsumed by the ballet’s world, by the sound of breaking waves.
This scene takes place in the middle of the film, and we never see anything like it again. The characters never again manage to reach the same high through art. Why? Because, as much as he meant it to, The Ballet of the Red Shoes doesn't represent Lermontov’s beliefs. Craster accommodates the pace of Victoria's dancing. We don't see Craster and Victoria fall in love, but we know there's only one place it could have happened: in their private sessions in which they endeavored to figure out The Ballet of the Red Shoes together.
And, even though Craster managed to impress Lermontov like Victoria did, he was never formally brought into their "family", and the measures he took to reach one artistic high aren't ones Lermontov wants to let him take again.
But Craster is more perpetrator than victim. His possessiveness and intransigence acts as a catalyst, bringing out the horrific potential of Lermontov's project. One of the bitterest things about this film is that Craster's cruelty, unlike Lermontov's, is so mundane and recognizable.
Craster and Victoria both start out as audience members, in a realm closer to our own, and only enter into Lermontov’s world slowly, learning how to fit in over time. They are our entry into the film's private realm. At first, they’re as amazed as we are at both the spectacle.
But The Red Shoes also puts the lie to the spectacle, attacking its capacity to put people down. Craster and Lermontov use art to inflate themselves in the same way wealth separates the film's world from the rest of the world; even though the film shies away from perspectives outside the Ballet Lermontov, it has no illusions about how it interacts with the world outside. It understands how attractive and even fulfilling such hermetic opulence can be but knows its potential for deception. This is even apparent in the ecstatic Ballet of the Red Shoes scene, in which several of the characters we recognize as friendly play evil roles in the story of the ballet. Craster and Lermontov’s use of art as status symbol, Lermontov wielding his power as a businessman over art, and Craster attempting to validate himself through propriety over other people rather than working with them toward something great; it all eventually leads both of them to their ruin, and they drag Victoria down with them.
Ignorance related to status was not new to Powell and Pressburger; they touched on it in their 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Moreover, that film is essentially an amalgamation of different anxieties that might weigh on the minds of British viewers in the middle of World War II; it speaks to Powell and Pressburger’s intention to use their art to engender sympathy across national borders.
Some react negatively to the end of The Red Shoes, finding it strange or unrealistic, but it works for me because the film does not present the characters involved with perfect clarity. It implies darkness in Lermontov and Craster that it never actually brings to the forefront until then, and the ending reveals that Victoria had the same complexity – but Lermontov and Craster were too preoccupied with self-aggrandizement to notice. The magical realist ambiguity of the ending leads us to consider its shocking, arbitrary violence in relation to the rest of the film’s beauty.
The Red Shoes is a collaboration of two art forms; the film is not just about ballet, but specifically accents the form of ballet. It may be a white elephant, but it understands the potential problems with the appeal of its extravagance, and uses them to address art in different ways it manifests.