An Appreciation – The Red Shoes
It’s appropriate that Powell and Pressburger would choose Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale as the ballet to showcase the struggle between love and art. The story involves a young woman who is given a pair of red ballet shoes by an evil shoemaker. Once she puts them on, she springs to life and begins to dance energetically. She dances with her boyfriend, through her town, and during a carnival. The young woman dances on and on, long after the carnival ends and long after her boyfriend disappears. The shoes possess her; they do not allow her to stop dancing. She continues to dance until she is ragged and exhausted, until finally, when the shoes are removed, dies. The production and performance of this ballet takes center stage in the film, as a large section in the middle is dedicated to it. This is both an impressive spectacle of dance and of filmmaking. Everyone in the performance are professionally trained dancers, and that can easily be seen in their technique and enthusiasm. The use of editing, matte paintings, and set design create a production that seems to transcend the stage, and becomes more of a hallucinatory dream experience. But beyond all that is the parallel of the ballet to the story of Vicky. Like the young woman she plays, Vicky cannot prevent herself from dancing—it is her life; she does not know anything outside of it. And it is that comparison that makes the performance of the ballet more than just a showcase of beautiful dancing. There are real emotions at play here, real risks at stake as we see the beautiful choreography by Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine. It’s what makes this lengthy section of the film special, because there is more going on than just what we see.
Besides the story, intricate dancing, and wonderful set design, one of the key elements that stick in our minds is the cinematography. I am a proponent of black and white photography, as I feel that it is more interesting to look at than color. However, the use of color photography in this film by Jack Cardiff would be a staunch opponent to my belief. This is one of best uses of color filmmaking I have seen. The film is a lush, gorgeous example of the three-strip Technicolor process at its very height. The colors pop off the screen with seeping life, the deep reds, blues, and yellows playing as much a part of the film as the dancing itself. The fiery redness of Moira Shearer’s hair, along with her ballet shoes, is unavoidable; they call our attention loud and clear. For years, the film lay in near pieces, ragged and dirty with scratch marks and faded color in its print. A recent restoration brought the film back to its near pristine original quality. We can now see it for how it was meant to be seen: as a visual treat, eye candy of the highest order.
Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, and Anton Walbrook create a dynamic with their performances that goes far beyond what we may first realize. This is a not simple love triangle—not in the physical sense, at least. Both Lermontov and Julian are representative of Vicky’s own self; they are both a part of her. Walbrook, with his cruel wit and harsh sophistication, acts in a way that is straight-faced, to the point, and yet, alluring. Lermontov knows what Shearer desires as a dancer, and knows exactly what to say to get her there. In turn, Goring is more spontaneous, more passionate with his performance as Julian. The relationship that Vicky and Julian have begins as one of hostility, then of mutual respect, and then of love. They both share a passion for their art and can sense how much the other cares for their own, and it is that commonality that brings them closer together. As for Shearer, her performance is one of remarkable complexity. She was not trained as an actor, but as a dancer. Powell and Pressburger stressed that they needed a professionally trained dancer to take their lead role, and to choose someone with no acting experience for such an undertaking was a tremendous risk. But what a great find they had in Shearer. She performs as Vicky with such class and appeal, as if it came by second nature. Think about this for a moment: not only does Shearer have to believably perform as an actor within the movie, but she also has to believably perform as an actor and dancer within the ballet in the movie. It’s a multi-layered performance that I cannot see anyone else accomplishing other than her.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a filmmaking team known as The Archers, and through their tandem created films that dealt with issues not normally seen. Take for example their other masterpiece, Black Narcissus (1947), a film soon to have its own appreciation piece. That film dealt with nuns working at a missionary in the Himalayas, and the struggle they each have with keeping faithful to the spirit and rejecting the temptations of the flesh. The Red Shoes deals with its emotional complication in much the same way, with a lead character struggling to a find a place between two worlds calling out for her. This is a film that grows on you, that reveals more and more fascinating aspects about it the more times you see it. Every time I watch the film, I find something new, some element that surprises me and rewards me for returning to it. Even now, as I write this article, I feel the need to watch it again, to re-enter this world of dance and love, to share in the experience of these characters as they work diligently to showcase their imaginations and creativity. It is without question one of the great films.