There is nothing quite like the shades of red in a Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger movie. The color absolutely radiates from the screen in their Technicolor masterpieces, fully immersing us in the passions of the characters. You have the rouge on Kim Hunter's heart-shaped lips in "A Matter of Life and Death," like a premonition of a love so pure and strong it can bring David Niven's dashing airman back from the afterlife. At the other end of the scale, you have the ominous red in the closing scenes of "Black Narcissus," enveloping us in a spurned nun's murderous jealousy.
Then, of course, you have the titular footwear in "The Red Shoes," the film often considered the writer-producer-director duo's greatest work. Along with Jean Renoir's "The River," Powell and Pressburger superfan, Martin Scorsese, considers it to be one of the two most beautiful movies ever shot in color, where the sumptuous cinematography from Jack Cardiff takes us into the psyche of an ambitious young ballet dancer torn between love and following her dream. Few films capture the artistic temperament so powerfully, and the drama and tragedy are heightened by paralleling the story with a stunning 17-minute ballet sequence, foretelling the protagonist's fate.
Powell and Pressburger worked under the banner of The Archers, and "The Red Shoes" was their tenth film together. It is perhaps the high point of their collaboration in both an artistic and narrative sense; they were never shy about going all-in with inventive special effects and ravishing imagery, and their flights of fancy and technical audacity really became one with the core themes of the story. But what exactly do the red shoes themselves represent when we arrive at the tragic finale?
So What Happens In The Red Shoes Again?
"The Red Shoes" opens with a group of enthusiastic music students piling into the Covent Garden Opera House to check out "Heart of Fire," the latest production by the prestigious Lermontov Ballet Company. As the orchestra commences with the score, budding composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is dismayed to hear that the conductor — his music teacher — has ripped off his work.
Meanwhile, ambitious young dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is attending the show with her rich aunt, who invites the company's impresario, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), to her swanky afterparty. He reluctantly agrees, and Vicky sees her opportunity to approach him. Impressed by her fiery personality, he invites her to a rehearsal.
Later, Julian manages to get an audience with Lermontov to complain about the plagiarized music. Lermontov asks him to play one of his pieces on the piano. He does so, and this convinces the impresario that he was truly the author of "Heart of Fire." Boris then offers him a job coaching the orchestra.
Julian and Vicky arrive for rehearsals, and Lermontov is initially dismissive of his new dancer until he sees her performing "Swan Lake" at a matinee for a small theater company. Realizing her potential, he decides to give her the lead role in his new production in Monte Carlo, "The Ballet of the Red Shoes," replacing his former star who'd left to get married. Julian is tasked with re-writing the score, which Vicky initially has trouble dancing to.
On the opening night, Vicky dances beautifully and earns rapturous applause from the audience. She's seemingly destined to become a major star under Lermontov's tutelage, but their relationship sours when he discovers she has fallen in love with Julian. Bitterly jealous, Lermontov forces her to make a choice.
The Ballet Of The Red Shoes
The highlight of "The Red Shoes" is the majestic ballet sequence, featuring a wonderful score from Brian Easdale, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It is based on the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, although the story is simplified somewhat to foreshadow Vicky's dilemma in the second half of the film. As Boris Lermontov tells it:
[It is] the story of a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance — At first all is well, and she's very happy. At the end of the evening she gets tired and wants to go home, but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets, they dance her over mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the shoes dance on…
The staging of the ballet is so lushly produced that it's almost emotionally overwhelming. It has proven influential to films such as "Black Swan" and the 2018 "Suspiria" remake because it boldly draws us into the protagonist's psyche, and the parallels with between the aforementioned films' protagonists and Vicky's life are readily apparent. The young woman in the ballet is lured away from her suitor by a diabolical shoemaker, and once she's under his spell, he won't let her stop dancing until she is dead. She tries to return to the man she once loved, but he sees she is still cursed by the red shoes and sadly rejects her. In distress, she dies from exhaustion in his arms, and he is able to finally free her of the shoes. The shoemaker then offers them to the audience, as if seeking his next victim.
Earlier in "The Red Shoes," we see that Boris Lermontov is very much enamored with his current star ballet dancer, Irina (Ludmilla Tchérina), but he turns his back on her when she announces that she is getting married. She leaves the company, creating a space for Vicky to become the focal point of the impresario's obsessive attention. This is paralleled in "Black Swan," through Thomas (Vincent Cassel) jettisoning Beth (Winona Ryder) for the younger, more agile, and emotionally naive Nina (Natalie Portman).
Lermontov is a fascinating screen villain, played with infernal intensity by Anton Walbrook. It is never quite clear whether he is interested in his protégées sexually or if it is just fierce ambition that drives his desire to possess them at their physical and artistic best. He is certainly at his most passionate when he is raving about the success he can give Vicky, but it's a double-edged sword. While there is little doubt he can make her famous, he demands that she forsake everything else in her life in return. He's a complex and toxic character, manipulating her desire for greatness to ultimately ensnare her.
After the success of "The Ballet of the Red Shoes," Lermontov fully takes on the role of Vicky's on-stage shoemaker. He gives her what she craves, but in return, will dance her to exhaustion, planning a series of tours around Europe and America where she'll tirelessly perform many different productions.
As with Irina, Lermontov reveals his ugly side when he learns of Vicky and Julian's relationship. Blaming the composer for distracting his star, he fires Julian. This leaves Vicky with a choice: go with Julian and get married, or stay with the company and pursue her career. Just as the shoemaker will not release the girl from the red shoes, Lermontov threatens not to release Vicky from her contract, but she ignores Lermontov's threats and chooses love with Julian.
Life Imitates Art
Once Vicky and Julian are gone, Lermontov relents on his decision to issue an injunction preventing her from dancing anywhere else. His only condition is that she never dances "The Red Shoes," and must swear no one else ever will. He then lures Irina back to the Company for another season, but it isn't enough — he still wants Vicky. Meanwhile, she is dancing whenever she can while Julian works on his first opera, which is accepted by the Covent Garden Opera House.
When Vicky returns to Monte Carlo to visit her aunt, Lermontov sees this as his chance. He questions why Julian should expect her to give up her dream while he pursues his. It's a good point, and it helps him persuade her to put on the red shoes again for another performance.
As Vicky is in her dressing room preparing for the show, wearing the red shoes, Julian appears. Having abandoned the chance to compose the premiere of his opera, he begs her to go back to London with him. Lermontov enters and tells her she will never become a great artist if she goes with Julian, painting a future of frustration as a housewife and mother. Echoing the ballet, Julian realizes she is still under Lermontov's influence and leaves.
Lermontov thinks he has won, but the torment of being torn between the two men drives Vicky into despair. She runs from the theater, throwing herself off a balcony and in front of a train. Julian runs to her while Lermontov announces her death to the audience, and the performance commences in tribute with the spotlight following the space where she should be dancing. Outside on the tracks, Vicky asks Julian to remove the red shoes before she dies, freeing her from Lermontov's spell.
What Does It All Mean?
"The Red Shoes" is one of the finest films ever made about the conflict between life and art, vividly exploring the familiar dilemma of one who's compelled to follow their dreams but finds that regular life has a tendency to get in the way.
Vicky and Lermontov face these problems from different perspectives. He is obsessive in his pursuit of greatness, but knows he can only fulfill his legacy if he has the best dancer in his ballet company. To him, life is a mere flippancy and love is "adolescent" compared to making art. Vicky, on the other hand, has the talent but needs Lermontov's support and influence to achieve her dream, leaving her at the mercy of the impresario's manipulation and jealous temper.
She loves Julian, but she also knows that Lermontov is right. Giving up dancing at the very top of her profession to become a mother and wife will not satisfy her, which is why she is so easily swayed to perform for him again. She swears that she isn't leaving Julian to go with Lermontov, but he knows the truth; her desire to dance has won.
Ultimately, the despair of being forced to choose between the two makes her take her own life instead, freeing herself from the heavy burden of the red shoes and the torment of her aspirations. A slight plot hole: Michael Powell decided to have her wear the shoes in her dressing room for her final performance, where she would normally put them on while on stage. This is an artistic choice that ultimately helps complete the thematic connection with the ballet. The film closes with the shoemaker offering the red shoes to us, as if to ask: what would you choose?
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