“The Red Shoes” - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948) is a British film that is very special and almost defies comparison.  And yet when one watches the film today, one can see that the basic story is rather simple and many of the production values were conventional for its day.  Nevertheless, the film has a rich, super-real aspect to it that evokes the feelings of a vivid dream.  Of course, many films can be said to be dreamlike, but The Red Shoes has a unique ability to carry the viewer very far in this direction.  And it differs from a cartoon in that it accentuates the real rather minimizing it.

The film concerns ballet production, which, itself, is an artistic medium that involves the production of dreamlike human landscapes.  But The Red Shoes goes further and blurs the distinctions between the dreamlike ballet and the production elements involved in making the ballet, and thereby it renders the whole ballet production arena into something of a dream.  This is what makes The Red Shoes so special.

The story of the film is inspired by the 19th-century fairy tale “The Red Shoes” [1] (1845) written by Hans Christian Andersen.  In that story, a vain and selfish young peasant girl becomes obsessed with a fancy pair of red shoes that she has acquired, and she ignores her family and community and only wants to show off her shoes by dancing in them.  But the red shoes have a punitive will of their own, and they force the girl to keep dancing in them nonstop, which leads   finally to the girl’s destruction.  

In the movie, the ballet production company’s impresario chooses to fashion and produce a new ballet, titled The Ballet of the Red Shoes, which is to be based on Andersen’s story.  As the film plays out, however, it can be seen that Andersen’s “red shoes” metaphor extends beyond this ballet to other aspects of the narrative, too.

The movie’s opening titles announce that film was written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who characteristically operated as a team.(hey called themselves “The Archers”, and this was their tenth collaboration).  However, it is generally assumed that the film’s direction was primarily carried out by Powell, while the script was primarily written by Pressburger (although Keith Winter was also credited with having co-written this script).  The film also benefited from the expert craftsmanship of several top-level British filmmaking professionals – the cinematography (in Technicolor) of Jack Cardiff, the editing of Reginald Mills, the music by Brian Easdale, and the ballet choreography by Robert Helpmann (who also had a significant acting role in the film).  

Despite rather limited promotion from the financially strapped Rank Organization production company, The Red Shoes was well-received when it was released, especially in the United States where it was nominated for five Academy Awards [2].  And the film’s reputation has only grown with critics and viewers ever since [3,4,5,6,7].  In particular, noted filmmaker Martin Scorsese has cited The Red Shoes as one of his very favourite films, remarking [7]:
“It is a film that I continually and obsessively am drawn to.”
The story of the film is relatively straightforward, and it is focussed on three principal characters:
  • Boris Lermontov (played by Anton Walbrook) is the impresario of the world-famous Ballet Lermontov that gives performances all over Europe.  In this connection he is a strict taskmaster and totally dedicated to ensuring that his ballet company performs at the highest artistic levels.
  • Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a talented, but little-known, young female ballet dancer who wants to achieve stardom in her field.  She is willing to make whatever personal sacrifice is necessary in order achieve her dream.
  • Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is an ambitious and super-confident young music student and musical composer who is likewise dedicated to his personal success.
Circumstances in the early stages of the film bring these three characters together, and in due time Boris Lermontov hires Julian Craster to compose music for his ballet company.

At a chance meeting at a party, Boris and Victoria (“Vicky”) Page have the following exchange:

    Boris (to Vicky):  “Why do you want to dance?” 
    Vicky:                     “Why do you want to live?” 
    Boris:                       “I don’t know exactly why, but I must.”

    Vicky:                       “That’s my answer, too.”

Vicky’s answer expressing her dedication to dance so impresses Boris that he decides to add her to his ballet troupe.

As the story progresses, Boris becomes more and more impressed with Vicky, and he decides to star her in a new ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Red Shoes”, with a musical score to be composed by Julian Craster.  With the ensuing rehearsals for this ballet, Vicky and Julian have to work together, and their assertive egos clash at various times.  But the viewer is likely to anticipate that as more tome passes a romantic attraction will eventually arise.

Finally, it is time for the public performance of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, and this 20-minute full-ballet sequence is the highlight of the film. It is lyrically filmed with a combination of long shots and closeups skilfully edited into a continuous sequence.  And it has a dreamlike nature to it, because there are a number of portions that could not have been physically staged, such as shots of Vicky dancing with an unfolded newspaper that magically turns into a physical dancing partner, or other shots showing Vicky watching another version of herself dancing.  It all adds up to a vision of something that is happening in Vicky’s imagination rather than something that is being performed onstage.

The Ballet of the Red Shoes turns out to be a huge success, and Lermontov, feeling that his highly demanding control of Vicky and his troupe has payed off, thereafter makes Vicky the lead ballerina and Julian the chief musical composer.  However, during this time Vicky and Julian have fallen secretly in love.  When Lermontov learns about this affair, he is enraged (and possibly unconsciously jealous) – he declares that love is only a weakness and a distraction from one’s true commitments in life.  He doesn’t want his protege, Vicky, to succumb to “adolescent nonsense” and lose her chance at artistic greatness.  So he orders them to breakup.  In response, Julian leaves the Ballet Lermontov, and Vicky chooses to go with him to London, where they get married.  So Vicky has chosen love over art.

But sometime later while Julian is busy rehearsing for his new opera that is to open at Covent Garden, Lermontov runs into Vicky alone and convinces her to return to Monte Carlo and perform again in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  When Julian hears of this, he rushes to Monte Carlo and goes to Vicky’s dressing room just prior to the ballet’s opening, with Vicky already wearing her red ballet shoes, and he pleads with her to return to him.  Lermontov shows up there, too, and he tells Vicky that she must choose between being a great dancer and being a housewife.

In anguish, Vicky tells Julian that, while he is the only man she loves, she must dance.  Seeing that he has apparently lost her, Julian despondently departs from the dressing room and heads for the railway station.  Vicky is now on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and she seems to succumb to the mysterious control of the red shoes she is wearing.  She runs maniacally out of the ballet theater looking for Julian, but she is headed for her own doom.  Did the red shoes force her into this climactic disaster, or was it her troubled imagination?

There are several aspects of The Red Shoes’s presentation that, almost surprisingly, contribute to the film’s effectiveness.  One of them concerns narrative realism.  There are three levels of  narrative “reality” in the film: 
  • The film, itself.  Every fiction film presents to the filmgoer a basic narrative, the story, that the film is about.  The context here is a ballet production company involving three principal characters. 
  • The ballet.  This story-within-a-story, which is told in a continuous 20-minute segment, relates to the outer story, but, of course, the narrative nature of the ballet form is particularly dreamlike and illusory.
  • The imagination of Victoria Page.  There are brief, disconnected segments showing unreal aspects that exist in Vicky’s imagination.
As I mentioned, he film’s exaggerated production values help blur the boundaries between these levels and contribute to fashioning a narrative whole.  Thus the rich Technicolor tapestry and the over-the-top acting unify some wildly disparate pieces into a continuous dream.

There are, in addition, two thematic elements in the film that stand out.  One concerns the expected role of women in society.  The two men, Boris and Julian, are well-intentioned but clearly chauvinistic towards Vicky.  They both emphatically demand that Vicky mold her entire life in accordance with their uncompromising requirements.  For her part, Vicky is entirely innocent and wants to do whatever she can to satisfy her two inflexible male dictators.  But she is faced with a choice that seems to be tinged with gender-specifics.  Boris Lermontov’s characterization of Vicky’s choice as one between choosing to be either a superstar or a housewife seems not to be too far from reality.  So the gender-related nature of the dilemma that Vicky faces can only further enhance the viewer’s sympathies for her.

The other thematic element that underlies the film concerns the tension between life and art.  Many times an artist has to choose between the two.  But in this regard, it is useful to remember that over our entire lives, we are continuously fashioning narratives about ourselves, about who we are.  And each of us is trying to make this the best possible narrative under the circumstances.  This is everyone’s life’s work, and it means that we are all artists/craftspersons.  So the choice between life and art involves the choice between two different forms of artistic expression.  One choice involves all the complexity of the world, and the other choice involves the streamlined expression of a specific art form.  And Vicky chose the latter – she wanted with all her heart to physically embody the abstract perfection of ballet dance.  As she asserted in her above-cited exchange with Boris, there was no choice involved – dance art was her life.

But the choice between life and art is frequently very complicated and stressful, and that is what “The Red Shoes” is all about.  As Martin Scorsese commented about the film [7]:
“It has to do with the mystery of art – the mystery of the passion to create and the darker side which can take over.”

  1. Hans Christian Andersen, “The Red Shoes” (trans. by Jean Hersholt), H. C. Andersen Centret, (19 September 2019).   
  2. Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'The Red Shoes,' a British Film About the Ballet, Stars Moira Shearer at Bijou”, The New York Times, (23 October 1948).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “A dark, glorious homage to dance”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 2005).    
  4. Ed Howard, “The Red Shoes”, Only the Cinema, (28 December).  
  5. Christian Blauvelt, “DVD Review: Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ on the Criterion Collection”, Slant Magazine, (20 July 2010).   
  6. Ian Christie, “The Red Shoes”, Essays, The Criterion Collection, (24 May 1999).     
  7. Martin Scorsese, “Martin Scorsese: 'The movie that plays in my heart'”, Independent, (29 April 2013).    

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