Ballet and obsession go hand-in-hand in this beautiful, triumphant film
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Moria Shearer (Victoria Page), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Léonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov), Albert Bassermann (Sergei Ratov), Ludmilla Tchérine (Irina Boronskaya), Esmond Knight (Livingstone Montague), Austin Trevor (Professor Palmer), Jean Short (Terry), Gordon Litmann (Ike), Eric Berry (Dimitri)
If there was a moment when “ballet” and “obsession” became synonymous in people’s minds, it might just have been the premiere of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The founding text in the cult of en pointe, The Red Shoes mixes technicolour beauty and fairy-tale darkness with an elaborate meditation on the struggle to balance life and art. For many it’s the peak of The Archer’s cinematic artistry. While I don’t place it that high – I have too much fondness for the beauty of A Matter of Life and Death, enjoyment for the bonkers madness of Black Narcissus and too much respect for the pleasures of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – there is no arguing that this is vibrant, beautiful filmmaking, two masters firing on all cylinders.
The Red Shoes is the ballet battleground for the conflicting demands of three people. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a Diaghilevish impresario for whom everything is secondary to art, demanding complete obedience from his protégés. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a gifted young composer who values life and love over art. Between them is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), graceful once-in-a-generation ballerina talent who wants to both dedicate herself to Julian but also dance herself into legend with Boris. These three will make and break alliances on and off tour, touring Craster’s Red Shoes about ballet shoes with a mind (and dance) of their own.
On its release The Red Shoes became the most successful British film ever released in America (it even topped the end-of-year box office chart). Its popularity added even greater momentum to the wave of Hollywood musicals that turned into a tsunami. Would Gene Kelly have had the guts to end An American in Paris with a fifteen-minute ballet if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t stuck a 17 minute one in the middle of The Red Shoes first? Where The Red Shoes differs from Hollywood musicals that pirouetted in its footsteps, was it darkness and surprising bleakness, it’s clear, cold-eyed look at the limits of opportunity and the dangers of following your dream.
Because Victoria Page – played with a great deal of honesty and affecting vulnerability by professional ballet dancer Moira Shearer – is severely damaged by doing so. Inveigling her way into Lermontov’s company (despite Lermontov’s distaste at her mother’s forceful pushiness) she proves her spurs by a sensational performance in a small-scale Swan Lake at the Mercury Theatre (dancing to a recording rather than a live band) and is parachuted into a leading role in Lermontov’s productions. Vicky dreams of leaving the sort of mark few do – but she’s also human, unsuited at heart to the fierce, all-consuming obsession Lermontov expects from his stars. Shearer makes her vulnerable, gentle, lacking the force of personality to resist peer pressure.
Pressure is what Lermontov trades in. Played with a vampiric intensity by Walbrook, Lermontov is pale, Germanic and frequently retreats behind sunglasses. He commands there is no God but art and that he alone is its unquestionable high priest. He holds court in his office, where his staff come and go, rotating around his every whim and opinion. He lurks in the shadows at the rear of the theatre during rehearsals, quietly passing judgement. Vicky’s predecessor is dismissed for daring to get married. And there is the constant expectation that should he ask you for a sacrifice, it should be made in seconds.
He doesn’t care for conflict. In fact, any disagreement is met with summary dismissal. It doesn’t matter how much he’s invested in you. As Julian Craster discovers to his cost. Goring does fine work as the enthusiastic young composer (even if he is clearly a little old for the role) who we are introduced to excitedly watching his professor’s new composition for Lermontov only to discover all the melodies are his. While Lermontov is reluctant to do anything to ensure Craster gains the credit for his work (a sign of his own need to control all patronage and praise) he takes Craster on, who proves himself no flash in the plan. But no amount of time invested in Craster matters when the young composer dares to fall in love with Vicky. And even worse, she dares to love him back.
Because love and a life outside of the dance isn’t part of the plan. These ideas are all captured in The Ballet of the Red Shoes, the piece Craster composes for Vicky (the preparation for which is the catalyst for their burgeoning love affair). Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the dancing shoes that had a life of their own, it neatly encapsulates Vicky’s problem. As Lermontov says summing up the story, it’s the tale of shoes that at first delight a young woman and then literally dance her to death. The entire ballet, like the film, is a grim reminder of the horrific price all-sacrificing excellence in the arts can lead to.
It’s fitting that this story is placed at the heart of such a hugely beautiful and fascinating film. Powell and Pressburger’s film are virtually a by-word for technicolour beauty. Jack Cardiff excels himself here as a photographer (only a reluctance to give this Brit outsider an Oscar two years running surely prevented even his nomination). The Red Shoes is crammed with exquisite imagery, gorgeous photography and striking, unforgettable colours. Hein Heckroth’s sets are magisterial (and Oscar winning), not least in the staging of the ballot that dominates the centre of the film.
The ballet is filmed quite unlike any other dance sequences in films. Powell in many ways breaks the cardinal rules of shooting dances. The ballet is a combination of quick edits and intricate camera moves. It is defiantly non-realistic: despite the setting, it is clearly (with its use of slow motion, super-imposed images and effects like the red shoes lacing themselves onto Vicky’s feet) not a faithful theatrical staging but highly cinematic. It beautifully, subtly suggests that we are at a tipping point between reality and imagination, that Vicky’s identification with the lead role has partially shifted her perception of the whole piece into a fairy tale turned real.
Is that partly why the whole film feels like we are walking in her own personal Hans Christian Anderson story? With Julian as the romantic prince, the theatre as a mix of enchanted forest and mysterious castle – and Lermontov as the beast who may be a prince in disguise or the wolf dressed as granny. It leads into the finales tragic ending, which blurs the line between reality, imagination and trauma into an undefinable mass. Do those red shoes exert a terrible, profound power of Vicky she hardly understands? Or are they just physical representations of her own ability to choose between the demands placed on her?
The Red Shoes is in some ways a traditional melodrama, not to mention another fable of a woman being unable to have both career and family (in the way, of course, that a man can). It is also a slim story, and the ballet – impressive as it is – depends on your relationship to that artform to work or not (I confess I find it drags slightly). But it’s also full of delightful behind the scenes sequences, from rehearsals to design meetings with Albert Bassermann’s Germanic designer to Craster’s coaching of the orchestra.
Visually rapturous, its directed with a great deal of flair and sympathy from Powell who draws some superb performances from his cast of mostly professional dancers. Although Shearer has no real chemistry with Goring, her performance as Vicky is beautifully observed and highly sympathetic and The Red Shoes is blessed with a definitive performance from Walbrook who is powerfully, imposingly domineering as Lermontov. The Red Shoes may at time dress its melodramatic heart in a little too much on-the-nose artiness, but it is also a sensational, ravishing film that lingers as long in the memories as Vicky’s prodigious dance steps.