The Red Shoes
The Criterion Collection
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann
Theatrical Release Date: September 6, 1948
– How would you define ballet, Miss Neston?
– Well, one might call it the poetry of motion perhaps, or…
– One might. But for me it is a great deal more. For me it is a religion. And one doesn’t really care to see one’s religion practiced in an atmosphere…such as this.
In what seems to be a film paying the highest tribute possible to the world of ballet, we are taken aback when the film ends when we realize what it really has been about the entire time. The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a girl who finds a pair of red slippers, puts them on, and cannot stop dancing. The film’s narrative approaches that subject and then ventures away from it.
From the opening credits a boisterous pop of color is displayed and it never lessens as the film progresses, attempting to convince us that this artistic, privileged world of ballet and music can only produce magic and no harm whatsoever. By failing to immediately recognize this world’s true intent directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also wrote the script from Andersen’s tale, are able to cast a splendid spell over their audience, only to involve them in a narrative that confronts jealousy. Not romantic jealousy, but a jealousy that would be fervently beating within the Old Testament God.
The above question is asked with complete seriousness by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walgrook), owner of Ballet Lermontov, his own ballet company that is world-renowned. When asking the question he already knows the answer he will receive will not be sufficient enough. He is a formidable presence and cherishes nothing less than genius in his field. What else can be noted is that he admires those who emphasize, with great clarity, their unerring love for music and ballet.
Those who are emphatic make up his disciples, or his ballet company. The two most talented happened upon Boris by chance. After sitting in on one of Boris’ productions, Julian Craster (Marius Goring) rushes in to speak with Boris letting him know the conductor stole some of Julian’s musical ideas. Impressed with the young man’s talents, Boris hires him to begin working on a production called “The Red Shoes.”
The other outstanding talent Boris finds is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). He meets her at a social gathering where she asks him if he would like to see her dance. He refuses. When he sees her dance at a production he is blown away, thinking she’s the only one who can dance the lead in “The Red Shoes.”
It is all wonderfully fashioned. The way Powell and Pressburger bring everything together only highlights effortless mastery. We admire the film’s craftsmanship and delicate care when presenting all of its characters. Once we become acquainted with these characters and their motives and desires, then we see where the two directors want to take this film. Sure the poetic dance sequences dazzle continually and their beauty is forever etched in our minds. But what Powell and Pressburger are chasing most is the madness that emerges out of Boris on a daily basis. We think he expresses such feelings when he is creating something out of nothing, but we see the madness most of all, a demonic madness, when someone develops a love for something that could possibly usurp their love of music. Boris is unabashed in his reaction to prevent such an occurrence because this threatens his musical genius and the potential genius he is trying to cultivate in Victoria and Julian.
Unlike most films about music or the musical business, The Red Shoes refuses to be a simple-minded fable documenting jealousy over one’s talent or of one’s lover. Yes, such topics are relevant in the film and are developed significantly. But all is a facade, as the film leads us down a more sinister route, one that depicts Boris’ impeccable behavior becoming unraveled as he realizes a love has formed between Julian and Victoria, and that love can threaten what he is hoping to create musically: a lasting legacy.
Powell and Pressburger may be cinema’s quintessential directing team. We never feel alone in their film worlds. The characters they created and the atmospheres they evoked, not only in The Red Shoes, but also in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), and Peeping Tom (1960), all urge us forward to encounter life, anguish, and beauty. In The Red Shoes it is a beautiful world celebrating the talents and geniuses life offers. But it is the anguish that prevails, because of Boris Lermontov’s Old Testament mindset. To quote the New Testament, “He is not worthy of me who loves son or daughter more.” Welcome to Boris Lermontov’s world.
Rating: ***** out of *****