Movie Review: The Red Shoes (1948)

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Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

The great Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is revered for his elegant and moving ballet productions. He is so dedicated to staging perfect ballets, he views everyone around him merely as tools working towards his own illustrious goal. He has no patience for relationships, or emotional hangups, or anyone who doesn’t commit themselves fully. When he discovers young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), he believes he can mold her into a larger-than-life presence on his stage. At first she is completely dedicated to ballet, performing mind-boggling feats in an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Red Shoes.” But after traveling around Europe with Lermontov’s company for some time, she falls in love with his principal composer, Julian (Marius Goring). Upon learning of their relationship, Lermontov endeavors to prove that ballet is more important than romance, and forces Victoria to choose between her two passions.

Presenting the art of ballet as a mind-bending fever dream, The Red Shoes is ostensibly the story of a woman who loves to dance, but actually the driving force is the character of Lermontov, and his almost sociopathic obsession with perfection. For Lermontov, Vicky is not so much a pawn, but a symbol, representing all that he hopes to achieve. He is a fascinating character, a seemingly soulless genius who cannot empathize, cannot understand how any true artist like himself could fall in love or give themselves over to anything other than their craft. He is unwilling, even unable, to compromise, and Walbrook plays him with a constant derisive sneer and heavy dollops of charisma. Vicky is obsessive too, but she’s also much more humanized, and she recognizes that in real life sacrifices must be made, and everyone can’t go on living in Lermontov’s insular theatrical world. Her romance with Julian is barely shown, and indeed we only learn about it as Lermontov does, for as an audience we ourselves are trapped by his own limited view, where everything and everyone revolves around ballet.

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And really, I wanted nothing more than to live inside that world. The main narrative is essentially a pretty frame around the significant ballet sequences, with everything coming to a standstill for the jaw-dropping, surreal mania of the titular production. In the off-stage scenes, Moira Shearer plays it all demure and quiet for the most part, except for a few stress-fueled outbursts in rehearsals, and it’s all nice enough. And then she just DOMINATES during The Red Shoes sequence. She was cast because she could dance as well as act, but clearly her dancing is the key. She strides out gallantly, forever picking up speed to match the frantic rhythm of the music, bounding and twirling through sprawling sets that become more and more impossible. The film as a whole is seemingly set in the real world, but this ballet moves farther and farther into fantasy, so seamlessly that I never thought to question it. Of course Lermontov would somehow suspend the rules of reality, with the dancers floating in the air, shoes moving of their own accord, and settings taking up more space than the stage could allow. It just cements his hold on both Vicky and the viewers, enforcing the magical, entrancing quality of ballet as an artform. Without this context, the melodramatic ending- which sounds kind of ridiculous on paper- seems somehow justified.

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Ultimately I know the most enduring element of The Red Shoes, for me, will be its visuals. My god. The plentiful and over-saturated colors, experimental effects, surreal painted stage sets, flowing costumes, fierce make-up, temperamental close-ups: it’s all perfectly blended together through the direction of Powell and Pressburger. The result is a sumptuously beautiful film, both over-the-top in its storytelling and emotionally grounded in its characters. And unavoidably tragic, as I suppose much great art must be.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Naturally, my mind flashed to Black Swan more than once, as Aronofsky pulled some inspiration from The Red Shoes for his own tale of a ballet dancer sacrificing her peace of mind for the sake of her craft. Or for a more down-to-earth ballet classic there’s Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance.

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