An Appreciation – The Red Shoes
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948) is a film that has grown on me over time. I remember watching it years ago, and admiring it for what it was, but not entirely loving it. As time passed, I found myself somehow returning to it again and again; slowly but surely the film wrapped me up within its mystique. The more I watched it, the more I appreciated their level of accomplishment. Whether it is the beautiful cinematography, or the intricate details of the dance choreography, or the intense pull the main character has between the passion of art and the passion of love, the repeated viewings revealed layers of elements I did not see before—it is a film that only gets better the more times it’s seen. It is one of the great films about creating art, from its great highs to tragic lows. I can now see why it is so acclaimed; I couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing it again.
Early on in the film, a character is asked why they want to dance, to which they reply “why do you want to live?” This is perhaps the key line in the entire movie. Besides film, dance is one of my favorite passions. There is a beauty in dance unlike other art forms—it is the physical representation of the musical. Dance allows people to freely express themselves in a way that a painting never could. It is exciting, unpredictable, and immediate. This film is perhaps the best dance movie ever made, because not only does it show the grace and almost effortless capabilities a dancer possesses in front of an audience, but it also reveals the agonizing hours of rigid practice they endure beforehand. What a dancer does easily on stage for a brief moment is the culmination of rehearsals that last almost ten times the length it takes to perform it. What Powell and Pressburger allow us to see is the preparation, the sweat, and the arguments that makes a dance performance as great as it can be—whether it’s in regard to the choreography, to the music, or the set design. But what keeps the characters in the film returning day after day into this chaotic backstage world is that they love it. It is their art; they cannot see themselves doing anything else. This is what brings our leads to their success, but it is also what brings them to their sadness.
Three main characters inhabit this world. The first is the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, played with a rigid and unwavering cruelness by Anton Walbrook. He is a master director of the stage, knowing full well how much dedication it takes to be perfect in one’s art. Lermontov’s productions are world renowned; dancers from all over the globe make their way to him in hopes of getting a chance to audition. Students of ballet clamber to his shows, fighting each other to get a good seat within seeing distance of where he is. Lermontov’s work is highly regarded, and rightfully so. What we see out of his company’s performances is work of elegant grace and epic scope. But what his admirers do not see is his steadfastness to only the work and nothing else. Dance is all that matters to him; everything else is irrelevant. He does not allow his company members to fraternize with one another, because it distracts from their work and takes the passion away from their performance. When the lead dancer of his troupe announces that she will be leaving to get married, he does not treat it as a moment of joy but rather a great dancer throwing away their potential for silly love. Lermontov does not bend in his belief; everyone who works for him must be dedicated only to him, and no one else.
The second character in play is the music composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Craster is a young and ambitious man, wanting to create great music but perhaps too willing to jump a few steps to reach that plateau. In the opening scene we see him joining his friends to watch the latest Lermontov production, but he notices early on that much of the music used was his own. When Julian confronts Lermontov about this, Lermontov takes it in stride. Instead of disregarding Julian’s accusations, Lermontov hires him as part of his company. Starting out first as a musical coach, Julian’s impulse for the big stage takes over, and he takes the initiative to practice with the entire orchestra without consent. Despite this act of rebellion, Lermontov sees the promise of greatness within Julian, and picks him to write an updated musical score to Lermontov’s production of a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.” Julian’s score for the ballet is accomplished with great success, but the partnership between him and Lermontov becomes cut soon after. Julian breaks one of Lermontov’s harsh rules—he falls in love with another member of the troupe.
That person is Victoria Page, played with unlimited charm and brilliance by Moira Shearer. Vicky is the center of the film; she is the one through which Powell and Pressburger focus their emotional message. First brushed away by Lermontov, he sees the potential she has when he sees her perform a local production of Swan Lake. When his lead performer quits, Lermontov handpicks Vicky to take the starring role. Perhaps he does this because he somehow has an intuition about her—maybe she understands just as well as he does the sacrifice one must make to become a great dancer. And what a great dancer she is, as she proves beyond any doubt that not only is she one of the best ballet dancers in the world, but also perhaps can be the very best, under his tutelage. But a complication arises when Lermontov learns that she has fallen in love with Julian—they have created romance in a place where he strictly forbids it. And this is where the heart of the film lies, in Vicky’s struggle to choose between the love she has for Julian and the love she has for dancing and being on the stage. After quitting the company with Julian, Vicky cannot help but return; she feels that the world of dance is a place where she belongs. And yet she cannot deny that she only wants to be with Julian as well, and the animosity that he has with Lermontov only compounds her agony. This emotional struggle bears heavily on Vicky, pointing the way toward unavoidable heartbreak and sad tragedy.