There is a disturbing contrast between two different type of stories in Powell and Pressburger's masterpiece The Red Shoes. One of the stories is a traditional Hollywood romance about a young ballerina who becomes an overnight sensation and falls in love with the composer of the ballet that inspired her. Then there's another story that seems more sinister, threatening and fiercely resentful. It's a darker story hiding behind the musical curtain, which involves obsession, control, and the unwillingness to accept change. I am talking about the impresario who runs the ballet company, and who demands perfection, obedience, and loyalty, and will not under any circumstance permit 'love' to mix with 'art.' The impresario is a ruthless and resentful man who loves to control and dominate, believing that if you truly want to be the best at something, nothing, nothing else should matter... even love. He's similar to a classic villain from folklore, a man so full of bitterness and contempt, unable to feel human warmth, that you start to wonder why he is the way he is, and what could have drove him to be this way. The Red Shoes is one of the most beautiful techno-color films ever made and while watching it you will find yourself engrossed and drowned in the bold bright colors and beautiful lush imagery that's presented on the screen. From the beautiful choreography of the dancing to the love story happening off the stage, The Red Shoes is a gorgeous wonder that makes you nothing but in awe when witnessing it. The director team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger are considered one of the best film director teams of all time, and I would place them aside other legendary British directors like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Carol Reed. Powell was the director and Pressburger was the writer, but they always chose to take double credit as writer-directors, and were known as The Archers; with their iconic logo which was an arrow hitting its target.
The title sequence of The Red Shoes in the beginning looks hand drawn which gives it a theatre like feel. The first shot of the film shows security trying to hold the doors closed before one of Boris Lermontov's shows. "All right. Let them in," he says. Right when the doors open a stampede of people rush through and up the stairs into the auditoriums. A scroll comes across the screen saying 45 minutes later as the performers are getting warmed up back stage. Theres a group of people there to see Professor Palmer's work and a group of people there to see Lermontov's work.
Before the show begins both artists sit behind the curtain. When the play begins, one of the audience members recognizes the main symphony theme. He realizes the theme for the play was his creation and that Lermontov's orchestra lifted it. "I say that's yours too, isn't it?" a friend asks. He gets furious and leaves the theatre during the show. A young woman named Vicky is watching from the high balcony as her grandmother named Lady Neston sends a note down to Professor Palmer to invite him and Lermontov to join a party afterwards.
Backstage after the show the aunt asks Lermontov, "now are you prepared for a surprise?" Lermontov asks, "do you mean a surprise lady Neston or a shock?" She then tells him she is having her niece dance at her party tonight."What would you call that" she asks. Lermontov rudely responds, "a shock." Lermontov then describes to her his feelings of the ballet by saying, "For me...it is a religion."
At the party Lermontov meets Vicky and he tells her that at a party everyone should be happy. Then he says, "Still as parties go, I think it might have been worse. We were, it appears to be treated to a little dancing exhibition. But now I understand we are to be spared that horror." Vicky then says, "Mr. Lermontov, I am that horror." He embarrassingly responds, "I'm sorry, I'm terribly sorry." She says, "but you're not sorry I didn't dance...are you?" Lermontov then asks her one important question.
"Why do you want to dance?"
"Why do you want to live?"
"Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must."
"That's my answer too."
Lermontov decides to take her on as a student and tells her to come in during the next audition. That very next day Lermontov has a guest, Mr. Julian Craster; the angry gentlemen at the ballet the other night. When he is invited in he says to Lermontov, "Last night I wrote you a letter and I'd like to have it back." Lermontov then says, "unfortunately Mr. Craster I already read it." Then he asks Julian to play something for him on the piano. Before Julian leaves Lermontov says, "by the way I need a new coach for the orchestra. Would the idea interest you?" Julian is very interested in working for Lermontov and before leaving Lermontov's room enthusiastic after being offered a job, Lermontov reminds him of the letter he originally came in to get.
Lermontov tells him when handing him back his letter, "If you take my advise you'd destroy it immediately and forget all about it. You see, Mr. Craster, these thing mostly happen unintentionally. It is worth remembering, that it is much more disheartening to have to steal...than to be stolen from." That next audition Julian and Vicky both show up trying to make a good impression for Lermontov. Vicky comes in and introduces herself to Grisha Ljubov the company's chief choreographer and Sergei the production designer. Ljubov says to her, "he invites them, I teach them. I get rid of them. He forgets them. And now, unhappy girl, will you please go to the far corner of the stage...where you'll meet five other young ladies to whom Mr. Lermontov has also extended his hospitality."
Ljubov is upset that their main star and dancer Irina is late again, and when she finally arrives they have a little argument; which seems to happen at every morning rehearsal. Mr. Lermontov ignores Vicky throughout the rehearsal and acts like they never have met. When Julian first arrives he isn't allowed through because his name is not on the list. Eventually with the help of Irina she gets him through and when orchestrating the chorus later that morning; Professor Palmer gets upset and asks, "Precisely what is going on? Do you realize that by calling the orchestra one hour early...that we shall have to pay them? Well, I leave this young man to you, Lermontov, after all, he is your discovery...not mine."
One night Lermontov attends Vicky's performance in a matinée of Swan Lake and sees potential in her and so during the next audition he includes Vicky as one of the potentials to go to Paris and Monte Carlo with him. At Monte Carlo Lermontov loses his main star ballerina Irina because she's getting married and when everyone congratulates her Lermontov is nowhere to be found. Irina sadly says, "he has no heart that man."
Lermontov invites Julian in for a meeting and lets him know he's doing a new play titled The Red Shoes, a story by Hans Christian Anderson, and asks him to rewrite most of the score. Lermontov slowly explains to Julian the classic story. "The Ballet of The Red Shoes is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired... In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired... They dance her out into the street... they dance her over the mountains and valleys...through fields and forests... through night and day. Time rushes by... love rushes by...life rushes by... but the Red Shoes dance on — and she dies."
There's a scene where Vicky is back stage waiting to make an entrance with the corps de ballet and overhears Lermontov saying to Ljubov, "Irina is out. Finished. You can't have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. NEVER." When Ljubov objects to Lermontov's statement that you cannot alter human nature, Lermontov coldly responds "I think you can do even better than that — you can ignore it." This scene is an overshadowing and the inevitable downfall of Vicky's fate at the end of the film.
As the première of The Red Shoes ballet approaches, Lermontov begins to eye Vicky as a possible new star for the lead role in the new ballet. In Monte Carlo Lermontov sends a letter to Vicky asking her to come out with him. When meeting with her; he then offers her the role as the lead in The Red Shoes. Vicky, being so excited can't sleep the night before practice and that's where she meets Julian for the first time; with him nervous as well because he has to conduct the score. During the first rehearsal Vicky is having doubts on her performance and so is some of the production crew. Lermontov makes a bet with Sergei that Vicky will be a star and says to him, "They won't wait till the end. They'll applaud in the middle."
After the first rehearsal Vicky asks Lermontov, "you still think I can do it?" Lermontov says, "Well, at the moment, you look as if you are finding it a little difficult. But when we open in two weeks time I hope you'll appear to be finding the whole thing supremely simple." Vicky and Julian's relationship get stronger through all the hard work and strenuous rehearsals and eventually they fall in love.
"You're a magician, Lermontov. To have produced all this in three weeks, and from nothing," says Ljubov. Lermontov responds, "even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat." After all the rehearsals, the creations of the art designs and the finishing touches on the music, finally...The Red Shoes is ready to première in Paris.
When the première of The Red Shoes finally opens, we as an audience are attending to see it as well, becoming part of the audience members in the theatre.
The Red Shoes is shown as a straight 17 minute ballet sequence, and Powell and Pressburger had to fight to get the whole amazing 17-min sequence in. The 17-min ballet sequence is one of the great scenes in movie history. It's a gorgeous vibrant colorful fantasy mixed with magical special effects, amazing camera compositions and beautiful dancing choreography.
Nothing ever looked as fantastical and beautiful when the little shoemaker puts the fatal red shoes on Vicky, which reminded me of Dorothy receiving the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. The stage becomes seamlessly transformed into a beautiful dream like world, where Vicky jumps and glides slowly through all the surreal like visuals and unreal lush landscapes in the background. There's even a magical dance sequence with Vicky and a newspaper that magically comes alive and takes the form of another dancer.
After The Red Shoes première it becomes a huge success and Vicky becomes a star overnight. Because of her sudden fame Lermontov talks with Vicky about her future. He then asks her again what they discussed earlier in the film. "When we first met at Lady Neston's you asked me a question to which I gave a stupid answer. You asked me whether I wanted to live, and I said yes. Actually, Miss Page I want more, much more. I want to create...to make something big out of something little...to make a great dancer out of you. But first, I must ask you the same question. What do you want from life? To live?" Vicky quickly answers, "To dance."
Lermontov then tells her that they will go on tour to Rome, Vienna, Copenhagen, Stockholm and America. Eventually because of Vicky's sudden international star quality Lermontov now designs the plays with Vicky in the lead roles. During this time Vicky and Julian have a love affair and one night in a horse carriage romantically holding one another Julian says to her, "One day when I'm old I want some lovely young girl to say to me, 'Tell me where in your long life Mr. Craster were you most happy.' And I shall say, 'well my dear, I never knew the exact place but it was somewhere on the Mediterranean, I was with Victoria Page."
That evening Lermontov shows up at a celebration of Ljubov's birthday. Lermontov when sitting down looks around at his crew and says, "but it appears that the great Miss Page is not with us tonight." His crew then tell him that a romance has occurred between Julian Craster and Victoria Page. When he asks where the two of them have gone; Sergei says, "What does it matter where they've gone. They are young, they are together...and they are in love." The camera holds on Lermontov's expression which shows a sign of disgust and contempt.
Furious especially when noticing Julian making romantic gestures to Vicky during her performances, he decides to have a talk with Julian about it, believing Julian and his romance with Vicky is distracting her from her dancing.
"What is all this I hear about you and Miss Page?"
"Yes. We're in love."
"I see. Did you see Miss Page's performance in Lac des Cygnes?"
"I was conducting. I think it was the loveliest thing I've ever seen in my life."
"It was impossible. And you know why it was impossible? Because neither her mind nor her heart were in her work. She was...dreaming? And dreaming is a luxury I've never permitted in my company. Miss Page wants to be a great dancer. She's not, however, a great dancer...yet. Nor is she likely to become one if she allows herself to be sidetracked by idiotic flirtations."
"Mr. Lermontov, you really don't understand...we really our in love."
"And Mr. Craster...I have had time to look at your latest effort...and find it equally impossible."
"That's not true. It's good."
"Childish, vulgar and completely insignificant."
Lermontov fires Julian, and removes him from the building. When Vicky hears of this she decides to leave the company with Julian as well telling Lermontov, "If Julian goes, I go too." Vicky and Julian marry and live in London where Julian works on composing a new opera.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the film; Lermontov is sitting down in a chair wearing his velvet red robe in his hotel room brooding with a self loathing expression next to the telegram of Vicky and Julian's marriage. He slowly gets up from his chair and start's angrily saying to himself "fool...fool... fool!" He looks at himself in the mirror and then mentally cracks as he shatters the glass with his fist.
Lermontov then relents his decision to enforce Vicky's contract, and permits her to dance where and when she pleases but the one exception is...The Red Shoes. Lermontov retains the rights to the ballet and ownership of Julian's music, and refuses to mount it again or allow anyone else to produce the ballet. Some time later, while joining her aunt for a holiday in Monte Carlo, Vicky is visited on the train by Lermontov who heard she was in town. He then says to her that everyone misses her and "we are preparing a new ballot. Nobody else has ever danced The Red Shoes since you left. Nobody else ever shall. Put on the red shoes Vicky...and dance for us again."
Excited about the proposition, since she hasn't really performed since she quit, she agrees to do it. On opening night, as she is preparing to go on stage, Julian appears in her dressing room; he has left the première of his opera at Covent Garden to take her back with him. Lermontov walks in, and he and Julian fight for Vicky's soul. Julian begs Vicky to walk out and leave with him telling her she can dance anywhere else in the world. Lermontov tells her nobody has two lives and her life is dancing and asks her if she would ever be satisfied with anything then the best. Julian accuses Lermontov of being jealous of Vicky, and Lermontov says "Yes!! I am, but in a way that you will never understand."
Suddenly Vicky is torn between her love for Julian and her passion to dance, but she cannot decide what to do. "I love you Julian," she pleads. "Nobody but you!" Julian then looks at the red shoes she's wearing and says, "but you love that more." Lermontov tells Julian if she leaves he'll never take her back and she will never be a great artist. Julian begs her saying, "Vicky...do you want to destroy our love?" Lermontov says, "adolescent nonsense. Alright...go with him...and be a faithful housewife!" Julian looks at Vicky realising that he has lost her and says, "goodbye then my darling," and then leaves the dressing room and heads for the railway station. Lermontov consoles Vicky as she's crying seductively telling her, "Vicky...little Vicky...There it is all waiting for you...Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance...like nobody ever before..."
After Julian leaves her, Vicky puts on the red slippers to get ready for the show and in a brilliant closeup the slippers seems to take a life of its own and Vicky eyes widen as she quickly turns around and runs from the theater to stop Julian from leaving but not before throwing herself in front of an oncoming train.
“Why do you want to dance?”
“Why do you want to live?”
A question followed by another question stands at the beating heart of The Red Shoes. It’s an entirely rhetorical exchange, but it underscores the power and the mystery of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece. For the respective speakers, a domineering impresario and a strong-willed ballerina, are talking about much more than dance. The real subject of their conversation, and of the film that contains it, is artistic dedication, even unto death.
Sounds rather grim for a work so beloved (countless all-time ten best lists), so inspirational (numerous references in A Chorus Line), and so influential (Gene Kelly screened it for his collaborators fifteen times before embarking on An American in Paris). But the film’s ebullient yet oddly sinister tone struck a chord with audiences the world over. This wide appeal can be understood in part in terms of genre. It is a kind of musical, a mainstream favorite, as well as a Technicolor spectacular. But musical generally comes as a hyphenate with comedy attached to it. The Red Shoes is drama. Perhaps the key to its power lies in the fact that it was created at a crucial juncture in history, and embodies that moment. As Powell says in his memoir A Life in Movies: “We had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy . . . , and now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” In taking artistic expression through dance so seriously, The Red Shoes goes well beyond the confines of a “backstage musical” into areas richer, deeper, and darker than any such film had ventured toward before—or would after.
That this film would prove so potent wasn’t at all obvious when the idea first took shape back in 1934. Film titan Alexander Korda, whose productions The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Scarlet Pimpernel had made Great Britain a serious rival to Hollywood, decided that he wanted to put together a project centering on the tumultuous life of the brilliant, troubled dancer Nijinsky—but with ample room to showcase his off- and on-screen leading lady Merle Oberon. In other words, a very tricky scenario. Screen tests of sundry ballerinas were shot by Ludwig Berger, then Korda’s choice to direct, and Pressburger was hired to write the script. Using Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale “The Red Shoes” as a plot pretext was also Korda’s idea at this early stage, though precisely how hadn’t been decided. So Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who got his start as a scriptwriter in Germany—before Hitler’s rise necessitated a hasty exit for England—immersed himself in the world of the Ballets Russes.
That dance company was still world famous at the time, despite the passing of its great impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, in 1929: the dances it created, and its conception of dance as a total theatrical experience, had set the standard for terpsichorean excellence everywhere. The prospect of putting this on-screen was clearly tantalizing to Korda, who always had his eyes peeled for the big, colorful, and splashy. With the coming of World War II, however, the as yet untitled project was put off—definitively so when Korda and Oberon called it a day. But Pressburger was still excited by the idea, so he bought from Korda everything that had been developed for the project thus far, and in 1946 began in earnest to mount The Red Shoes, as it was then called.
By this time, Pressburger had formed an alliance with Michael Powell, a British director who’d cut his teeth on “quota quickies,” low-budget films decreed by the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 to promote British production in the face of a Hollywood-dominated industry. They first worked together in 1939, on The Spy in Black, starring Conrad Veidt, and following the success of their 1942 One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, established their soon-to-be legendary production company, the Archers. With an arrow hitting a bull’s-eye as its avatar, the Archers went on to create such original and ambitious works as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus, all dealing in one way or another with aspects of the British national character—in a manner that was celebratory but never without an insightful, critical edge—and always with a visually extravagant style. The Red Shoes raised the bar Powell and Pressburger had set for imaginative moviemaking even higher, including taking Technicolor, which they’d used so expressively in Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and especially A Matter of Life and Death, into new realms: this time, they peered not into the afterlife, as that last film had done, but into the souls of human beings. Additionally, in contrast to their previous Anglocentric efforts, The Red Shoes found them looking toward the Continent.
While there was a recognizable division of labor between Powell and Pressburger, with the latter in charge of the screenplay and the former the directing, the Archers cosigned their films, the better to underscore the fact that not only did their roles frequently overlap but they stood at the helm of a group of craftsmen—cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designer Hein Heckroth, composer Brian Easdale, and actor Marius Goring, to name a few—whose contributions to the whole should never be taken for granted. The Red Shoes reflects this in the story itself. For while it centers on a near megalomaniacal impresario, the brilliant young dancer he makes a star, and the youthful firebrand of a composer whose love for the dancer threatens the impresario’s authority, the film concerns an entire ballet company and the many different and talented people involved in making it run.
Powell and Pressburger decided to bypass Nijinsky and zero in on his lover-mentor Diaghilev. And while antihero Boris Lermontov isn’t depicted as sexually or romantically involved with anyone in an ordinary way, his obsession with dancer Victoria Page goes right to the heart of the Diaghilev-Nijinksy story. For like Diaghilev, Lermontov doesn’t wish simply to make his dancer a star—he wants to control her life in every possible way. But how can you dramatize that without totally alienating movie audiences? Powell found the answer in Anton Walbrook: “When it came to The Red Shoes and that devil Boris Lermontov, there was no question in our minds as to who should play him, and give a performance filled with passion, integrity, and, yes, with homosexuality.”
Born Adolf Wohlbrück, Walbrook came from a family of circus clowns but turned to acting from the start, studying with the great Max Reinhardt. Making a name for himself on-screen, he appeared in such hits as Viktor und Victoria (the 1933 precursor to Blake Edwards’s 1982 romp Victor/Victoria) and a 1936 sound version of the silent expressionist classic The Student of Prague. But Hitler’s rise to power made it impossible for an artist who was both gay and Jewish to do anything other than get out of Germany as soon as possible. Walbrook found a home in England, making a particularly triumphant appearance as a German émigré in the Archers’ wartime rouser The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where he delivers the central patriotic speech with a resonance and sincerity that have never failed to move anyone who has seen it—even if they aren’t British. The Red Shoes required that Walbrook make a seemingly unsympathetic man sympathetic. And that he does, not by softening the character but by accentuating his mystery. While Powell and Pressburger saw Lermontov as one part Diaghilev and one part Alexander Korda (in his grandiose plans for his ballet), Walbrook’s own personality added something extra. The dark glasses that Lermontov wears—even on occasions when there isn’t any sunlight—were an affectation of Walbrook’s. It set a fashion that was taken up in earnest a decade later by sundry celebrities in Italy, during the dolce vita era known as Il Boom. His sartorial fastidiousness, coupled with a veneer of emotional reserve barely hiding a passionate sexual drive, is clearly what Powell meant when he spoke of the part played by Walbrook’s own gayness in the Lermontov role.
As for the object of Lermontov’s all-consuming attention, the Archers chose an actual dancer, Moira Shearer. A featured performer, but not yet a star, with the Sadler’s Wells ballet, Shearer proved, to Powell’s complete delight, to be that rarest of all cinematic supernovas: a natural. And she amply demonstrates that the filmmakers were right in seeking out a dancer for the female lead, rather than an actress whose performance would be supplemented by a ballet double. For when you look at Shearer, you see a dancer—even when she’s standing still. Adding to that is the way she so easily conveys the spirit of a young woman who knows what she wants for a career, and is willing to take on the powerful man who wants to give it to her.
Powell and Pressburger’s sensitivity to physical dramatic nuance is made plain in an early scene featuring another dancer-actress, Ludmilla Tchérina. While we get only a few shots of Tchérina rehearsing or performing in the course of the film, in this moment, when her prima ballerina, Boronskaja, guides the young composer Julian Craster (Goring) to the backstage area of the theater—briskly gliding through, head held high, in a manner that an ordinary actress would have found hard to execute—she makes her greatest mark. What she does in this scene is convey not only a dancer’s instinctive physicality but the soigné glamour of the ballet as a whole. This is carried a step further by Robert Helpmann, who plays a principal dancer and also choreographed the climactic ballet, called The Red Shoes. A fortiori Léonide Massine, who was a Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer and also Diaghilev’s protégé in the wake of Nijinsky’s departure. Like Shearer, Massine had never acted before, but one would never guess it from his exceptionally skillful performance as the antic Grischa Ljubov, who is as warm as Lermontov is cold. In the Red Shoes ballet, he plays the shoemaker (a role the film credits him with creating), the weird, long-haired figure who lures the girl into his shop to take the footwear that will both fulfill her dreams and end her life. That Lermontov casts the cheery Grischa in this role is downright diabolical.
Powell and Pressburger designed their film to climax with this ballet, running some twenty minutes in length. It was a concept quite without precedent. While the action that precedes the sequence charts the process of creation, this isn’t done by teaching the audience anything about dance steps or musical composition. Rather it’s the spirit behind the ballet that comes to the fore, as in the scene where Vicky, dressed in an elaborate ball gown, a tiny crown on her head, goes to see Lermontov at the château he’s rented just outside town. Climbing an enormous staircase overgrown with weeds, she suggests the sort of fairy-tale heroine Cocteau would have created had he made Beauty and the Beast in color. Powell and Pressburger’s Beast, Lermontov, has to deal with more than Shearer’s Beauty, however. For right after informing her that she will star in his next—and greatest—creation, he calls in Craster.
Earlier, Lermontov explained to the composer: “The ballet of The Red Shoes is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”
“What happens in the end?” Craster inquires.
“Oh, in the end, she dies,” says Lermontov, with brisk matter-of-factness.
There are two elements that make this pivotal moment indelible. One is, of course, Walbrook—the dramatic stress he places when intoning “the red shoes” and “never tired,” the masterly cool with which he dominates the scene. The other is the sudden appearance on the soundtrack of the first notes of music for the ballet that Craster has yet to write. It’s already a part of him, Powell and Pressburger seem to be saying. It’s an assignment that’s ordained by fate. And so is its outcome. Julian and Vicky will not only work together as artists but fall in love. And this love will prove their undoing.
“You cannot have it both ways,” Lermontov tells Grischa, in a moment designed for Vicky to overhear. “The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” He is speaking of Boronskaja, who in a scene just before—when she announced to the company that she was leaving to get married—looked beyond the circle of dancers happily congratulating her for a glimpse of Lermontov, who had suddenly left the room. “He has no heart, that man,” she said with pointed poignancy. The truth, of course, is that he does, but he hides it. We can see that in the shot that follows her declaration—Lermontov sitting in his office in complete darkness.
Or is he, perchance, the Prince of Darkness? The ballet certainly suggests that—for what we’re shown is not so much what’s going on on any imaginable stage but what’s roiling through Vicky’s mind as she dances. The audience is never seen, and we, the film audience, see more than anyone in a theater ever would. Not just in terms of an unobstructed, up-close view of the dance, but inside Vicky’s mind as Lermontov and Julian take turns partnering her while she dances through make-believe carnivals, ballrooms, deserts, and cloudy skies with pieces of cellophane falling, along with humans, as she drives ever onward toward obliteration.
The ballet is a kind of magic, psychodramatic tableau vivant. The Andersen story is enacted in it, but also the conflict among Vicky, Lermontov, and Craster. Fantasy and reality intermingle right from the start, when the shoemaker puts the ballet slippers on the ground and they stand by themselves, until Vicky suddenly, and quite magically, leaps into them. As the ballet progresses, color and atmosphere become as important as dance steps—especially when the gaiety of the initial moments gives way to despair and horror. Cardiff’s lush, textured cinematography works hand in hand with Heckroth’s production designs, as a public square becomes a carnival, a nightscape of monkey-headed streetwalkers, an empty ballroom, and an even emptier desert. Strangest of all is one long shot where we see the girl pirouetting in the foreground while in the background dancers appear to be worshipping a grotesque, seemingly living mask that hangs on a stone wall. Offstage, things are worse, as the action builds to the wrenching scene where Craster and Lermontov demand she choose between them—which she clearly cannot.
“Take off the red shoes,” Vicky pleads to Julian at the last. But the red shoes can never really come off—just as The Red Shoes once seen can never be forgotten. Particularly not in this stunning new restoration, for which restorers went so far as to meticulously repair (using the latest digital technology) the original negatives, the better to give the film new, vivid life. But The Red Shoes is clearly more than a film. It’s a complete and indelible expression of life and art themselves.
The Red Shoes is one of the most beautiful techno-color films ever made and while watching it you will find yourself engrossed and drowned in the bold bright colors and beautiful imagery that's presented on the screen. From the beautiful choreography of the dancing to the love story happening off the stage, The Red Shoes is a gorgeous wonder that makes you nothing but in awe when viewing it. The director team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger are considered one of the best film director teams of all time, and I would put them next to other legendary British directors like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Carol Reed. Powell was the director and Pressburger was the writer, but they always chose to take double credit as writer-directors, and were known as The Archers; with their iconic logo which was an arrow hitting its target. This directors team were very influential for young aspiring directors, most famously the great Martin Scorsese who has loved their work since he was a boy, and has helped on numerous occasions to get their films restored and re-released.
Powell and Pressburger have created several masterpieces together including Black Narcissus which involves the sexual tensions of nuns in a convent in the Himalayas, The Thief of Bagdad which is an amazing techno color special effects fantasy film based on the classic story, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp which flashes back between the life of an extraordinary man, I Know Where I'm Going! a romance triangle on an island during a life threatening storm, and my favorite A Matter of Life and Death, a fantasy romance that involves the courts of the heavens and the of love of the living.
Pressburger had originally written a draft of a ballet film in the 1930s put it down and forgot about it, and then after the war, picked it up and had decided to look at it again. Powell had grown up on the French Riviera where his British father ran a hotel on Cap Ferrat for which he often saw the Russian impresario Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes wintered nearby in Monte Carlo. The story Pressburger developed may have been inspired by a famous scandal in 1913 when Diaghilev's great but tortured star, Vaslav Nijinsky, married the Hungarian ballerina Romola de Pulszky and fired them both.
The Red Shoes isn't just a tragic romance but it also shows the behind the scenes and creative life of show business while developing such an audacious project. Lermontov might be arrogant and cruel to the people around him but he is a genius at his profession, which is discovering talented performers and putting on an amazing show in just a short period of time. Moira Shearer was perfect in her part as Vicky, with her fiery glowing red hair, to her piercing intense blue eyes, her performance lights up the stage. Powell wrote in his autobiography,"She had a magnificent body. She wasn't slim, she just didn't have one ounce of superfluous flesh." Critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Shearer, who was 21 when she was cast, was at the time with the Sadlers' Wells Company, dancing in the shadow of the young Margot Fonteyn. She didn't take movies seriously, waited a year before agreeing to star in The Red Shoes, went back to the ballet, and possibly never knew how good she was in the movie, how powerfully she related to the camera." When first coming across Shearer", Powell told the studio owner J. Arthur Rank, "I never knew what a natural was before. But now I do. It's Moira Shearer."
Casting is extremely important, especially if you need to pull off creating character who are able to move between realism and the fantasy world. Shearer and Walbrook were perfect for the roles as Vicky and Boris, as they both embodied distinctive colorful personalities that just radiated the movie screen. Walbrook plays the vicious Boris Walbrook, the imperious, cunning, cold and arrogant manager of the Ballet Lermontov, a company to which he ruthlessly controls with an iron grip. The German actor Anton walbrook plays the passionate and lively Julian Craster, and in one of my favorite scenes in the film Julian Craster bursts into Lermonvtov's office to complain that his musical composition was stolen by the conductor. Lermontov is impressed by Craster spontaneity, and fiery passion and hires him on the spot, while Vicky wins an audition, and the two are ultimately assigned to be the two major roles in the upcoming premiere of The Red Shoes. "Her cloud of red hair, as natural and beautiful as any animal's, flamed and glittered like an autumn bonfire," Powell wrote in his autobiography about of Walbrook he wrote: "Anton conceals his humility and his warm heart behind perfect manners that shield him like suit of armor. He responds to clothing like the chameleon that changes shape and color out of sympathy with its surroundings."
The story of The Red Shoes is a classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson which tells the tragic story about a young girl who puts on a pair of red slippers that will not allow her to stop dancing; and she must dance and dance, in a grotesque mockery of happiness, until she is dead. The Red Shoes is known for its infamous 17 minute straight ballet sequence, and Powell and Pressburger had to fight to get the whole amazing 17-min sequence in. I believe if your going to see a film about ballet, you should be patient and eager to sit through a 17-min show of amazing choreography and dancing. The 17-min ballet sequence is one of the most extraordinary sequences in all of cinema history, as it's a gorgeous vibrant colorful fantasy mixed with magical special effects, creative camera compositions and beautiful dancing choreography. "There are lots of clever scenes in 'The Red Shoes'," Powell wrote, "but this is the heart of the picture." Nothing ever looked as fantastical and enchanting as when the little shoemaker puts the fatal red shoes on Vicky, which reminded me of Dorothy receiving the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.
The stage becomes seamlessly transformed into an astonishing dream like world, where Vicky jumps and glides slowly through all the surreal like visuals and unreal lush landscapes in the background; with even a wondrous moment when a newspaper magically comes alive and takes the form of another dancer. "I was determined to shoot it in one big master shot," Powell wrote. The art direction for The Red Shoes won an Oscar, and so did the music, as the film was nominated for best picture, screenplay and editing. The cinematographer Jack Cardiff wrote about how he manipulated camera speed which he used to make the dancers seem to linger at the tops of their jumps, gracefully gliding and floating in midair, transcending space, gravity and precision, which greatly reminded me of the beautiful poignancy of the choreography in Ang Lee's martial arts masterpiece Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon. Critic Roger Ebert says, "This ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is a masterpiece of composition, of entrances, exits, approaches to the camera, background action, and the vibrating sense of a creative team at work." Only a few other films really have created this type of inner reality and imagination into their musicals, where the audience becomes engrossed in its extraordinary artistry, like Singin in the Rain, An American in Paris and several of the Busby Berkeley films from the early 193o's.
The Red Shoes is a visually beautiful film, but they're darker more disturbing themes brewing beneath the surface of its story. Lermontov makes for one of the most fascinating and mysterious villains in all of cinematic history. Lermontov adds a darker Shakespearean tragic tone to its story, with striking Freudian themes that delve into the darker and unstable emotions of its characters. They're a lot of people who have questioned the intentions of Lermontov and of why he feels so resentful and objects so violently for the love and marriage of a young couple. I thought for a moment that he was probably homosexual and he wanted to live his happiness though Vicky's astounding success, or that maybe he loved her and that it was a form of psycho-sexual jealousy because he didn't know how to accept or surrender himself to his emotions. Critic Roger Ebert writes, "Lermontov is a bachelor with the elegant wardrobe and mannered detachment that played as gay in the 1940s, but there is not a moment when he displays any sexual feelings. But the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that." After seeing The Red Shoes a few times Lermontov has always dwelled on my self-conscious, and I've come to the conclusion that Lermontov does not and cannot feel love or attraction to either sex, and that any love, emotion or passion that lingers within him goes directly into his work. For some reason I believe him expressing love or emotion to another human being would show a weakness and venerability to his character. I think he's too proud, arrogant and stubborn to want to surrender himself to petty human emotions, and would rather die. There is a demonic shot of Lermontov alone in his luxury hotel room wearing an elegant wardrobe and sitting in his chair staring at nothingness. His stern eyes burn a rage of contempt and hate and it feels he's always diabolically plotting for his own self-worth. Like he said to Vicky earlier in her career "I will make you the greatest dancer the world has ever known, but a dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer -- never." The bargain he makes to Vicky sounds like the character of Mephistopheles in German folklore, or of Satan in classic literature, tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit demanding only obedience, and is enraged after he loses Vicky's soul because of love. You know how The Red Shoes is going to end, because there's no other appropriate way it really can end. Just like Hans Christian Anderson's tragic fairy tale The Red Shoes which is about a young girl who puts on a pair of red slippers that will not allow her to stop dancing; and she must dance and dance, in a grotesque mockery of happiness, until she is dead; — except it happens in real life. Discussing the script, Pressburger argued that Vicky couldn't possibly be wearing the red shoes when she runs away, because the ballet had not yet started, and the story doesn't have her put them on until the middle of the show. Powell writes: "I was a director, a storyteller, and I knew that she must. I didn't try to explain it. I just did it." At the end of the film when Vicky has to choose between her lover or her career and decided to dive out onto the train, I always wondered if it was suicide or a simple accident. Maybe Powell and Pressburger are suggesting what the legend of The Red Shoes suggests. It wasn't her who took her own life, it was the shoes, and when putting them on she was powerless over them, and since she couldn't have her true love and her dream career together in this life, the shoes willingly made her decide there was no purpose in having a life at all.