The Red Shoes (Michael Powell; Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

“Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit”

Introduction

I originally watched this film to ‘inform’ me of the Powell and Pressburger influence on Shutter Island. The influence is clear – specific shots of Teddy Daniels running down the stairs are shot-for-shot copies of a similar sequence in The Red Shoes. The regular argument amongst film-writers and bloggers about the necessity of appreciating older-films, I believe is here. Truly, how can you fully appreciate the technical skill and intelligence behind a film-maker like Scorsese without considering his influences. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy his films, but I would argue that you enjoy it more when you realise how diverse and experienced he is within the medium of Cinema – especially when a film from the forties is used fleetingly to influence a film in 2010.

A Relationship doomed to Tragedy

The film charts the life of dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) and composer Julian Craster (Marious Goring) joining the Lermontov Ballet under the leader Boris Lermontov, played impeccably by Anton Walbrook. An obvious love-triangle becomes apparent through a tension resting between Lermontov himself and Vicky Page – an ‘unspeakable’ love. A love that is more out of a mutual desire to perfect the art of ballet rather than a sexual and physical attraction towards each other. Indeed, Lermontov does not lust after Page sexually, but lusts after her natural grace and he is desperate to exploit this – whatever the cost. The fascinating balance between madness and genius has been explored many times in films, much recently in Darren Aronovsky’s Black Swan.

The Surrealism of The Red Shoes

The dance of The Red Shoes is a story by Hans Christen Anderson: A dancer wears a pair of red shoes and begins dancing and … cannot stop. Even when tired, she cannot stop – dancing forever. This is the ballet Vicky Page finds herself destined to perform. The obvious parallel to the story surrounding this performance becomes more intriguing. Vicky finds herself falling deeper and deeper into this ballet and, as she does so, she is taken away from her loved ones. Lermontov is relentless and Vicky wants to satisfy his demands.

We are privileged to see a surrealist sequence when The Red Shoes ballet is performed – masterfully executed in an expressionistic manner. The waves crashing on the side of the stage replaces the audience. The dreamlike quality as Vicky dances as she has never danced before – we  are emotionally, physically and mentally shook to the core as we see what Vicky has created, whilst she herself becomes a victim to the art-form. This sequence alone became iconic, inspiring many other directors at the time – specifically, An American in Paris depicts Gene Kelly performing a ballet that clearly owes itself to The Red Shoes.

The Final Act

As the film draws to a close, Lermontov finds out that Vicky Page and Julian Craster are in love and this distorts his perspective: Can she dance as well if she shares her love for ballet, with her love for another? Or does Lermontov love her himself – much more than he admits?

Many ballet sequences in the film remind me of the tension between Charles Foster Kane (Welles) and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) in Citizen Kane. The difference is between the awful opera-singing that Kane supported, opposed to Lermontovs obsession for perfection regarding Page’s dancing. Vicky Page is an incredible dancer; Susan Alexander couldn’t sing. But both women are failing to reach the expectations of their male-supporters. Clearly a parallel with sexist attitudes of the time and the pressures men placed on their partners.

The tragic ending as Vicky jumps (to her death? to destroy her legs?) is purposefully similar to the story the ballet is based upon. In the Christian Andersen’s story, her feet are “hacked” off to stop her from dancing, whilst here the tragedy lies in her desperation to break-free from the constraints others have placed onto her – or is it the shoes? With Snow White and the Hunstman and Mirror Mirror released, it is worth noting how darkly sinister these fairy-tales are – Hans Cristian Andersen wrote many of the best: Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Snow Queen. Though moral tales, like the Brothers Grimm (writers of Snow White), these are deeply sinister stories with horrific and tragic endings. Though we know the Disney ‘for-kids’ version better, it is altered dramatically from the original story. The Red Shoes manages to use the story to inspire a modern-day reinterpretation, whilst staying true to the tragedy and depth or the original source material. Combine that with the fascinating, cinematic experiences of the ballet depicted on-screen and you realise that what you are watching is a masterpiece.

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