In 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were in their prime. The combined success of A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going! and Black Narcissus had cemented their status among the most inspiring and innovative filmmakers of their day. When J. Arthur Rank heard their next project was going to be a film about ballet, his heart sank and his financiers panicked. They needn't have worried, for the result is a total masterpiece, both among their work and in its own right.
The Red Shoes is a breathtaking film, a perfect marriage of spectacular visuals and a slow-burning, heartbreaking story. It blends the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen with powerful undercurrents about art, obsession, jealousy and devotion. The whole thing is held together by Powell and Pressburger's trademark direction, which blends fantasy and reality effortlessly, taking the audience on a highly imaginative journey. The first time out you will be so overwhelmed you won't know what to think, save that the film is something very, very special.
Dance has always been a popular subject on film; even Metropolis has several minutes of it, as Maria's robotic double seduces her audience of impressionable voyeurs. But notwithstanding the other problems of most mainstream efforts (Grease, Flashdance, Step-Up etc.), there are many examples of dancing being used to either needlessly pad out a film or to disguise narrative shortcomings. On the one hand, we have the twenty minutes of roller skate dancing in Heaven's Gate (which is about twenty minutes too long). On the other hand we have the ending of The Millionairess, with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren waltzing on the balcony with nothing but contempt for their viewing public.
The Red Shoes' first big strength is that it falls into neither of these traps. The dance sequences in it are not only beautiful, but they are filmed with the same sense of discipline and restraint exercised by the ballet teachers when drilling the dancers. Although the film is over two hours long it never feels baggy, because the dancing is kept to a minimum and only used to initiate a plot point or important piece of character development.
This is particularly true in the centre of the film, when the whole of 'The Red Shoes' ballet (written specifically for the film) is performed on screen. Like many older films, the dance sequences are filmed in long takes with straightforward editing, to give a sense of scale and the level of physical preparation which went into choreographing the dance. But more than that, this 20-minute sequence is filled with enough visual brilliance and imagination to rival anything in Moulin Rouge! or Spirited Away.
The Red Shoes is a classic Powell and Pressburger film because of the unique way in which it blends fantasy and reality. During the eponymous ballet, we drift between the realistic portrayal of the dance, as something being performed on a physical stage, and the more fantastical view of the world which is coming entirely from the mind of the central character. In one magical moment the red shoes magically appear on Vicky Page's feet, and as she dances with the shoemaker she sees in his face the faces of the different men dominating her life. These touches come so quickly and so seamlessly that it is a challenge to say where we are at any given moment. But there is enough beauty and passion in these scenes to prevent us from getting lost or confused.
The Red Shoes is often cited as one of the most visually extraordinary films ever made - a moniker which it thoroughly deserves. Of all the films made in the golden age of Technicolor, this is probably the best (pipe down, Wizard of Oz purists: it's not that good). It's not just that the colours are so perfectly rendered on screen, but they are used symbolically and sparingly to convey the deeper themes of the picture. Take the scene where Maurice Lermontov is picking out the exact pair of red shoes that Vicky will wear for the ballet. What could have been a simple showcase for Jack Cardiff's cinematography becomes a multi-layered and intriguing scene which hints at the nature and motives of certain characters.
As you might have guessed by now, The Red Shoes is not centrally a film about ballet. You certainly don't have to be a fan of ballet to enjoy it. The original fairy tale is about a singular passion which comes to dominate a person's life. That passion for dancing is made physical in the magical shoes. which force the wearer to dance forever, until - in the original version - she cuts off her own feet and dies. And while there may be nothing quite so graphic in this version, the ending is every bit as earth-shattering.
Vicky Page, played brilliantly by Moira Shearer, is a young woman who desires nothing more than to dance. In one of the film's key scenes, Lermontov questions her about why she wants to dance. She asks him, "why do you want to live?"; he replies, "I don't know exactly why, but I must" and she repeats his answer. Page's talent is something that she does not fully understand, and Lermontov gives her a chance based solely on her technical abilities. But as the film moves on, his tutelage develops into something a lot more personal, and Vicky is forced to question her raison d'etre still further.
The Red Shoes is a brilliant examination of jealousy and obsession, centred around the conflict between art and love. Both inspire great levels of devotion, whether to ideals (the art of dancing or the dream of love) or to practical gains (money or marriage). But unlike many modern films, The Red Shoes keeps a lid on this jealousy until the very last scenes. There are several moments throughout of Lermontov and Julian Craster essentially fighting for control of Vicky, both as a person to be loved and as a object to be marketed. But these conflicts are never directly over the girl, with most of their conversations surrounding individual sections of music, interlaced with tart remarks about standards and ambitions.
Vicky is caught in the middle of a powerful love triangle consisting of love, art, and the gifted individual. On the one hand, she is drawn to Lermontov, who offers her success and nurtures her talent but cannot allow her to love anyone. He despairs at his prima ballerina who leaves the company to get married, remarking: "a dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.". On the other hand, there is Craster, a talented composer who is devoted to Vicky whilst wanting to further his own career via the opera. He is the only one who can offer her love, but the sting in the tale is that her talents must come second to his ambitions.
In the climactic final scene, we see these two forces come to blows as Vicky breaks down and does not know what to do. After Craster leaves, Lermontov consoles her and she prepares to perform. But suddenly, clad in the red shoes, she dances out of the theatre, all the way to the railway station and to her tragic end. Many might questions this small inconsistency (why is she wearing the red shoes at the start of the ballet?), but as Powell pointed out it makes sense when we examine what motivates her to leave the theatre. Did she choose to go of her own free will and love for Julian, or did the shoes make her go against her will?
The Red Shoes is a magnificent achievement, with fantastic central performances, breathtaking visuals and a wonderful soundtrack. Its influence can be seen in most of the great Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, and there has never been a film about dance (or ballet) which has captured the art in such a fascinating manner. It is hard, however, to call it Powell and Pressburger's best film, because of their extraordinary body of work. One thing is for sure - Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan has a very hard act to follow.