The Red Shoes (1948)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 December (12.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

These days we just get to enjoy the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who seemed to spend their working lives together crafting esoteric, whimsical and often fantastic British movies that were spinning off on tangents all of their own. The rest of the world did its thing while the pair ploughed their own creative furrow, resulting in a unique body of work that includes some of the most interesting films made at the time. There’s the love letter to England that is A Canterbury Tale. Forces from the afterlife debate the future of David Niven’s soul in A Matter of Life and Death. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, British attitudes to war are covered, to unsparing and cynical, yet ultimately celebratory, effect.

At the time audience reactions to their films were a mixed bag – some were loved unreservedly, others had an alienating effect on viewers, and it’s only with the passing of time that we have learned to appreciate fully their dreamlike wonders, and to be grateful that they were allowed to get away with it again and again. Churchill famously loathed Blimp. People were baffled by A Canterbury Tale. And The Red Shoes, which was criticised for choosing a topic no one wanted to see on the screen, took some time to really find commercial favour. Once it did then it really did, becoming a major hit and claiming a couple of Oscars, but the initial feeling was less than fulsome, and you can imagine the public wondering what the hell all this was about.

Certainly, there are elements of The Red Shoes that are very daring, especially for the time it was made. Gene Kelly made a success of the in-film sequence where the plot is put to one side in favour of an extended dance sequence, yet it was a fresh idea when Powell and Pressburger inserted a 17 minute ballet sequence into the middle of their movie. Imagine the dream scenes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound being left uncut by the disparaging, controlling hand of Selznick, so that you see the full, disturbing vision instead of a short highlights reel, and you come close to what was committed to the final cut here. Essentially, we get a vision of The Red Shoes as envisioned by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and brought to life by Julian Craster’s bewildering score and the dancing of Victoria Page. The ballet is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and teases out the nightmarish, psycho-sexual overtones of the girl who gets the red shoes she wants, but can’t control them and the shoes keep dancing long after she’s reached the point of exhaustion. As the shoemaker is portrayed in increasingly Guignolian tones, Page is still dancing as her pretty dress turns into dirty rags and the community turns her away, ignoring her plight. The painted backdrops take on a more sinister edge. The set dressings become elaborate, impossible to really be there on the stage and you realise it’s as much the product of someone’s imagination – Page’s own? The audience’s? – as it is clever stage design, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the production design work of Hein Heckroth building a bizarre and unsettling claustrophobia of limited space, through which Page pirouettes in ever more desperate and frantic circles, the need to rid herself of the shoes urgent and yet impossible.

The Red Shoes is the sad tale of Page (Moira Shearer), the dancer who gets her opportunity to shine when the company’s prima ballerina announces her marriage. To impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), there is no room for love in the life of a ballerina. ‘The music is all that matters‘ he tells her, a fateful warning as she beings a romance with the composer, Craster (Marius Goring) and this threatens her dancing future. Page ultimately is forced to choose – a career in Lermontov’s company, which is demanding yet professionally rewarding, or ‘earthly’ happiness with Craster, a dilemma that has tragic consequences.

As the single-minded Lermontov, Walbrook plays a monster. Dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his vision and enforcing a work ethic that is nothing short of punishing, Lermontov is at his worst when Page’s relationship with Craster means she will never be fully his and his mood spills over into rage, a professional resentment as he found his muse and has had her snatched away. Goring, impressive in A Matter of Life and Death, gets the more straight role as Craster, asserting his musical talents and coming to love Victoria. Much of the cast was filled with real ballet dancers, which is how Moira Shearer came to the role. She had little love for the demands of working on film and would go on to make fleeting future appearances, though there’s little doubting her impact on The Red Shoes, notably in the signature ballet sequence that lays all her talent bare on the screen, the emotion and longing expressed through sheer movement. It took Powell a year to entice Shearer for the part, and she was unimpressed with his efforts to direct her and her fellow dancers, feeling he didn’t ‘get it’ and tried to treat them like any normal actor.

The picture has an overall dreamlike feel. This is partly achieved through some incredible use of Technicolor, lending everything a lush, glossy sheen. Much of the action takes place in Monte Carlo, which adds to its fleshy air of romance. Craster and Page are shown chatting on their hotel veranda; a train passes below, blowing plumes of  smoke that surround them, as though enveloping them in cloud. It’s a mirror held to the conceits of ballet, the artifice and implied sexuality displayed through dance. Shearer might have been right in sensing Powell and Pressburger were not qualified to work with dancers, but they knew how to create a mood, and the ethereal one they generated for The Red Shoes – made, lest we forget, during the difficult, lean years following World War Two – is powerful indeed.

To modern viewers, it’s impossible to ignore parallels with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 entry about Natalie Portman’s dancer working to earn the lead role in a prestigious production of Swan Lake and the toll it takes on her very sanity. The similarities are easy enough to see. Both films are about the strains made on ballerinas, their efforts to reach the heights of performance clashing with the other demands on their lives, but the newer film has more obvious leanings in the horror genre, the obliquely expressed challenges for Victoria Page made frighteningly stark in Portman’s case. I know which of the two I prefer. The Red Shoes is powerful, beautiful and its sense of longing present yet elusive. In many ways it’s a companion piece to Black Narcissus, one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger productions, another story of earthly pleasures encroaching on a world where they have no place. By the film’s close, Victoria has become the real life wearer of the red shoes, compelled by them to dance, and dance, and dance to destruction, and watching her do so has an absurd and enchanting quality that makes the film hopelessly compelling. By the finish, just like Victoria I have surrendered to the power of the red shoes.

The Red Shoes: *****