Great Moments in Cinema: The Red Shoes
Cinema is an interesting art form, in that it is made up of a number of other art forms, including theater, painting, music, and writing (among others). Not all films can be considered art, nor should they all strive to be, but when they do rise to that level, they become something that can help us better understand ourselves, and the world around us. While some filmmakers are obviously just in it for the money and the fame, cranking out products designed solely to keep the masses amused, there are those who have chosen to dedicate themselves to cinema as an art form, and have made a concerted effort to deliver films that can be savored by those who crave a bit more substance from their entertainment. Two such filmmakers were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collectively known as The Archers. They made massively entertaining films that also happened to be substantive masterpieces still pored over to this day. Their crowning achievement is The Red Shoes (1948), a stunning Technicolor love letter to the power of cinema, and the pitfalls of artistic devotion.
Victoria Page (the luminous Moira Shearer) is a beautiful and determined ballerina who wants nothing more than to dance for the imposing yet captivating Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a stern yet fair ballet impresario who demands nothing less than complete and total devotion to the art of dance from the members of his company. Victoria eventually makes her dream come true, but just as she is poised to attain superstardom, she falls in love with Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the hungry young composer of “The Red Shoes,” an ambitious ballet based on the classic story by Hans Christian Andersen. Now, Victoria finds herself torn between her loyalty to Lermontov, and her overwhelming love for Julian. With both men determined to steer the beautiful young dancer toward the fate they feel she deserves, Victoria realizes that her life is spiraling out of control, and she fears there is no way to please the two men she loves more than life itself.
According to noted film critic David Ehrenstein, the central theme of The Red Shoes is “artistic dedication, even unto death.” Ultimately, however, the film is about ballet, which is why it is so interesting that the film’s central sequence, an extended performance of the titular ballet, is not so much a celebration of dance, as it is a loving tribute to the power of cinema. Through the use of extensive editing techniques, special effects, and clever camera tricks, Powell and Pressburger have crafted a stunning ballet sequence that could only take place on film. It is a powerful love letter to their chosen medium, as well as a breathtaking sequence that also manages to encapsulate the film’s central themes.
The sequence starts backstage, just before the premiere of Craster’s ballet. All is chaos as the cast and crew scramble to make sure everything is ready by the time the curtain goes up. Victoria is putting the final touches on her makeup when Julian ducks in to wish her luck, and tells her to dance whatever tempo she likes, because he will follow her. This brings a smile to Victoria’s lips. Meanwhile, Lermontov is making the rounds, trying to keep everyone calm, especially the excitable choreographer Grisha Ljubov (Léonide Massine). Finally, the show starts, and the dancers take the stage. Victoria enters right on cue, and she leaps into the spotlight as a young woman who wants to go stepping out with a handsome young suitor. On their way to the carnival, they pass by a cobbler’s shop, and he entices the young woman with a pair of enchanted red shoes that will allow her to dance longer and better than anyone else in the land. When they arrive at the carnival, the young woman becomes the main attraction as she dances up a storm, leaving her date lost in the crowd. Later that night, the young woman returns home, but to her horror she realizes that she cannot stop dancing. Soon, she is pirouetting her way through a nightmarish landscape of demons and other unsavory types, all in a desperate effort to get back to her suitor. When they are finally reunited, it is just in time for the young woman to collapse from exhaustion, and she dies in her lover’s arms. He removes the red shoes from her feet, and they dance their way back to the cobbler’s shop, where he puts them back in the window to await their next hapless victim.
The sequence serves as the film’s centerpiece, and is the perfect showcase for Shearer, who is a truly gifted dancer. But the sequence isn’t about dancing. Instead, it is designed to show off Powell and Pressburger’s mastery of cinematic techniques. The sequence may start on stage, but soon enough we are transported directly into Victoria’s imagination, and we follow along as she dances from one dreamlike backdrop to the next, all thanks to some brilliant and wholly obvious editing. There is a moment early on in the sequence when Victoria confronts the devilish cobbler played by Grisha Ljubov, and as the stage lights flash, he transforms first into Julian, then into Lermontov, and finally back into the cobbler. It’s a moment that could probably happen on stage, given the right circumstances, but not as seamlessly as it does on film.
That Powell and Pressburger are not interested in depicting the reality of the stage production becomes obvious when Victoria runs through Ljubov, and finds herself in a hazy sort of limbo. She stumbles around in a daze before falling down a hole that goes on seemingly forever, only to land in a barren hellscape in which she dances with a piece of paper that instantly turns into a demonic version of her young suitor. None of this could be achieved on stage, at least not with the seeming ease it does here. This is not to demean or denigrate the work of those who produce and perform live theater, but more to illustrate that film can accomplish things that are not always feasible or easy to achieve on stage. There is an old saying about the magic of cinema, and in this instance, it couldn’t be more relevant. Powell and Pressburger accomplish some amazing things in this sequence, and despite the fact that a lot of hard work went into producing it, it all seems to unfold in real time before our eyes. That is the magic of cinema, and these two men are master magicians.
Powell and Pressburger were devoted to their art, but not so much that they didn’t recognize the cost that comes with that sort of total dedication. While they strove to create art, they also made sure that above all, their films were entertaining. Above, when I wrote that there are filmmakers who are content to simply churn out product aimed at a wide audience, it was not meant as scornful or dismissive. Movies are a form of entertainment and, as such, they should entertain, at least on some level. Powell and Pressburger understood this, and as such their films are massively entertaining, often injected with a playful sense of humor that still strikes a chord with audiences to this day. At the same time, however, they were consummate artists who were dedicated to making films that would stand the test of time in the same way that the paintings of Van Gogh or Shakespeare’s plays have. In that respect, they were devoted artists, and that is one of the reasons why we are still talking and writing about their films over 50 years after they were first released.