THE RED SHOES

A DANCE OF DEATH TOWARDS THE SUBLIME

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
6th August 2023

It is London in the late 1940s. A young woman, with vibrant red hair and wearing a stunning blue velvet dress, wanders through an affluent party held by her aunt. She is nursing a disappointment. She had hoped to dance tonight at the affair as a demonstration for an illustrious ballet impresario, but has been told that the man is not interested. On her way to the bar she spies the man, the imposing Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'). As she orders her champagne cocktail, he glances at her. How could he not? She radiates with a beauty that is at once ethereal and shockingly human. Lermontov tries to make small talk, but she is unwilling to respond. He remarks that the party could have been a lot worse, that they were to be subjected to a "little dancing exhibition" but have thankfully been "spared that horror".

"Mr Lermontov," she smiles, "I am that horror."

He nearly chokes on his drink. He tries to apologise, knowing that it is probably too late ("Yes," she replies, "a little late, I think"). He asks her name. It is Victoria Page. He explains that when he comes to a party, he doesn't appreciate being tricked into an audition, an explanation even Vicky can understand. Seeing her disappointment, he turns to her.

"Why do you want to dance?" he asks.

She thinks for a moment. "Why do you want to live?" she replies. He smiles. "I don't know exactly why, but... I must."

With great stillness and surety, she looks him in the eye.

"That's my answer too."

This is the first roll of thunder in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 masterpiece 'The Red Shoes', a statement of intention that sends shockwaves through the rest of the film. As the perfectly conceived plot takes each of its carefully considered twists and turns, you hear the echo of those words ringing in your ears, a young woman asserting her devotion to her art, a sentiment shared by millions of artists across the years and across the world, and a prophecy for the impossible question this idealistic young woman will have to answer in two hours' time. Many works of art have tried to grapple with the dizzying conflict every artist must navigate - the push and pull between art and life - but none, none have ever expressed it as succinctly and completely as this small exchange at an affluent party by two people in polite conversation. Its execution is simple. Its subtext is tectonic.

'The Red Shoes' is maybe the most effortlessly beautiful, and certainly one of the most effortlessly devastating, films ever made. It represents the apex of Technicolor as a cinematic art form, stands as one of the greatest films about the experience of being an artist, and features a centrepiece sequence that almost defies description, one that has been endlessly imitated and yet no one (even Gene Kelly) has come anywhere close to matching. The experience of watching 'The Red Shoes' is total, whether for the first time or the twentieth. I recently introduced a large group of friends to it, and their response reached moments of the ecstatic before crashing to stunned silence. As rich and diverse as the history of film is, 'The Red Shoes' is singular, almost sacred. It feels impossible that it should exist. It feels miraculous.

By 1948, Powell and Pressburger, collectively known as The Archers, were on one of the greatest runs in cinema history. Throughout the Second World War and working as co-directors, writers and producers, they had made some of the most indelible British films of their day, reaching their peak in this period with the luminous 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946, also released as 'Stairway to Heaven'). Their next film, 'Black Narcissus' (1947) was an even greater achievement, winning Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Through these two films (and their earlier classic 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' in 1943), they and cinematographer Jack Cardiff had elevated Technicolor to heights its developers Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Frost Comstock had ever dreamed, employing colour on film the way the Impressionists had on canvas. Their films were literary and complex and boundlessly imaginative, featuring some of the best performances on screen from some of the greatest actors of their time, and dazzled the grey and gloom of the war and post-war period like light streaming through a stained glass window. Critics praised them and audiences adored them. They were in a position to do whatever they wanted. What they chose was a fairytale.

'THE RED SHOES' TRAILER

'The Red Shoes' uses the foundation of Hans Christian Anderson's tale of the Red Shoes as a starting point for the complex love triangle between Vicky, Lermontov and an ambitious young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring, 'A Matter of Life and Death'). Lermontov invites both Vicky and Julian to join his prestigious dance company, her as a dancer in the corps de ballet and him as an assistant conductor. Young and ambitious, they both try to distinguish themselves, eventually convincing Lermontov to give them the opportunity of a lifetime. Julian will compose a new ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale and Vicky will dance the tragic heroine, whose desire for a dazzling pair of red dancing shoes turns into a nightmare when the enchanted shoes dance her to her death. The ballet is a triumph, and as their stars quickly rise, Julian and Vicky fall in love, much to the horror of the possessive Lermontov. Caught at a terrible crossroads, Vicky must choose between the career she has always dreamed of and the man she loves.

It's the kind of conflict that underpins countless melodramas, often squeezed of every ounce of juicy drama, but the devastation of 'The Red Shoes' is how, when the moment of choice comes, it feels shockingly real. It isn't as straightforward as one or the other, as that conversation at the party tells us. There's a myth perpetuated by artists that their art should be enough, maybe to convince themselves that the sacrifices and the pain are worth it in the end, but the clarity that the film offers in the emotional chaos of its climax is that wanting to dance and wanting to live are both one and the same, and yet completely different. When faced with the choice, it isn't so clear whether it will have been worth it in the end.

Powell and Pressburger wisely pull from the real world of ballet to create their fictional company, likely inspired by Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his legendary Ballet Russes. Even Moira Shearer, making her acting debut as Vicky, was an acclaimed ballet dancer before she was cast. The first act of the film immerses us in the insular world of the ballet, its idiosyncrasies and conflicts, its impossible demands and inflated egos, all through the eyes of Vicky and Julian. No small detail is left unrealised, from the tempestuous lead dancers and choreographer to "just somebody's mother" fixing the costumes. The world concocted by Powell and Pressburger feels alive and dynamic and real, a machine in constant motion, using instinctual processes to create feats of the impossible.

What they are also careful to reveal is how intrinsically all this dedication is woven into the smokescreen of exclusivity and glamour. Lermontov cultivates an atmosphere for his artists of their being superhuman, beyond the imaginations of the ordinary. They are bonded on a collective philosophy that what they do is sacred, that it reaches into the infinite and touches divinity. It's shocking to consider that 'The Red Shoes' is set in a world recently ravaged by war when everything is so glamorous, so beautiful and so opulent, but these artists live in a strange netherworld separate from the influences of war or history. Their bodies creak and break, they work insane hours and suffer great heartbreaks, but as such they deserve only the finest their imposing father figure can offer. It isn't just reward though, it's a diabolical physiological tactic still employed by arts companies today - dazzle your artists with a sense of doing something important so they will willingly sacrifice everything they have in service of their art and, by consequence, your company's financial needs.

Lermontov delivers several speeches in the film on the importance of dedication to your craft, but Powell and Pressburger are always careful to counterpoint that with a subtle rebuttal.

"You cannot have it both ways," he tells Vicky side-stage during a performance. "The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never."

But then his chief choreographer Grischa Ljubov (Léonide Massine, 'The Tales of Hoffman') chimes in. "That's all very fine, Boris," he says, "Very pure and fine, but you can't alter human nature."

"No?" he replies. "I think you can do better than that. You can ignore it."

This outburst is prompted by the ultimate betrayal, his prima ballerina Irina Boronskaya (Ludmilla Tchérina, 'The Tales of Hoffman') leaving the company to get married. This is another tactic in the all-consuming world Lermontov has constructed, to prevent his "family" from glimpsing life outside the ballet and wanting something more, forcing them to "ignore it". Compared with what is to come for Vicky and Julian, Irena's retirement is the best possible outcome they could hope for.

The first act of 'The Red Shoes' strikes the perfect balance between verisimilitude and melodrama, taking us behind the curtain of how ballet is realised on this scale while also laying in place the conflicts for the three central characters. With each moment though, it is also moving towards the key sequence of the film - the performance of Julian's ballet of 'The Red Shoes'. The action of the film builds to a frantic frenzy as the overture begins. Set doors won't close, dancers are forgetting choreography, the pressure is building. And then, just as that pressure reaches its peak, the film stops. We see a wide shot of a stage, concealed by red velvet curtains. In held silence, they slowly part to reveal Grischa in costume as The Shoemaker, holding a luminous pair of red ballet shoes. In that extended moment of stillness and silence, you can feel the film itself holding its breath. It's no wonder. What it is about to reveal will be unlike anything seen on film before or since.

In that extended moment of stillness and silence, you can feel the film itself holding its breath. It's no wonder. What it is about to reveal will be unlike anything seen on film before or since.

For fifteen astounding minutes, we see the ballet unfold before us. The camera doesn't remain static though. Powell and Pressburger, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designer Hein Heckroth, composer Brian Easdale, choreographer Robert Helpmann... none of these artists are interested in showing us the ballet, having us watch passively from a distance. They want to immerse us in it, create something only possible through the language of cinema, with superimposed images, close-ups and special effects. In their hands, the ballet becomes a breathtaking, all-consuming, dazzling, devastating, horrifying, electrifying psychological dreamscape, Vicky dancing through impossible spaces of colour and light, at once gigantic and minute. It is the ultimate demonstration of ballet as an emotionally-driven form of artistic expression, the trope of the Dream Ballet raised to such artistic heights that it is essentially impossible to match it. Calling the Ballet of The Red Shoes in 'The Red Shoes' one of the great miracles of cinema doesn't even come close to doing it justice.

The true genius though is that, while dazzling us with its technical brilliance, the ballet sequence is enriching the psychology of the central love triangle. Before the ballet, Julian asks Vicky whether she will imagine anything during the first performance. As she dances through these impossible spaces, the story of the ballet melds with her own internal life, fantastical figures suddenly transforming into Lermontov and Julian. The conflict of this young woman being forced to dance to death becomes key to Vicky's own story. In this way, the ballet sequence becomes so much more than an artistic triumph, the kind that could feel separate from the rest of the film (such as the dazzling but baffling Broadway Melody sequence in the otherwise perfect 'Singin' in the Rain'). It becomes the ultimate expression of the conflict at the heart of the film, setting the final terrible pieces in motion. The film reaches its ecstatic height with the ballet, but the horror comes with just how far it now has to fall when it all comes crashing down.

And when it does, the crash is catastrophic. As the narrative dictates, Lermontov and Julian must battle for Vicky, and with more power in his hands, Lermontov will win, but in the process of firing Julian, he loses Vicky too. The film doesn't pretend that Vicky isn't happy with Julian, finding a new career for herself and supporting him in the writing of his opera, but at night she lies awake, haunted by the memory of the red shoes and the triumph they danced her to. It is one thing to dance, but it is another to be the greatest dancer, to perform at the top of your game in the greatest theatres, supported by the greatest artists your art form has to offer. Of course, Vicky returns to Lermontov to dance again, but she does so believing that she can still foster her relationship with Julian.

What she doesn't bank on, what we don't bank on, is Julian. The collapse at the end of 'The Red Shoes' is swift and complete, Vicky's cataclysmic realisation that she is stuck between two men whose ambitions demand she be the engine and witness to their success. No matter what they say, particularly Lermontov, none of this is about or in benefit of Vicky. We know that Lermontov does not understand or accept Vicky's love for Julian over ballet, but the horror of this moment is that Julian does not understand or accept Vicky's love for ballet over him. He cannot see that her want to create and to dance is as complete as his, and what he asks of her in this darkest of moments, demands of her, is to give it all up in service of his art, an act that will reduce this great dancer to nothing but a silent observer. To dance will mean to lose the man she loves. To love him will mean to lose that which makes her soul fly, her heart sing. She will lose regardless, and the pain will be so great as to tear her apart. And it is at this moment, dressed in her costume with the red shoes at her feet, that she makes the most terrible of choices. The final minutes of 'The Red Shoes' are a shocking cymbal crash of violence and devastation, the roll of thunder begun in that fancy London party coming to its peak, the film itself shaking from the impact. Every perfect piece of the film falls gently, quietly into place, its infernal dance coming to completion in one of the most haunting final moments captured on screen.

For audiences in Britain in 1948, 'The Red Shoes' came as a shock. They were expecting something bright and magical, something to help alleviate the melancholy of the post-war period, but were horrified by the emotional violence of the film. They were even dismissive of the ballet sequence, accusing Powell and Pressburger of distracting from the skill of the dancers with their abstract flourishes. In the United States though, the film was lauded as a triumph by critics and embraced by audiences, with the film earning five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (although no nomination for Jack Cardiff's cinematography, one of the most baffling snubs in Oscar history).

Now 75 years on from its release, the film is universally praised as a landmark. It has been consistently named as one of the best British films ever made, is counted as a favourite for filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, been imitated by and has influenced countless films from 'An American in Paris' (1951) to 'Barbie' (2023), and even inspired Kate Bush's 1993 album of the same name. In 2009, the film was gifted with an astonishing digital restoration, rescuing the film before its battered original negative became wholly unusable and ensuring its preservation for future generations. When lists or books are written about the best films ever made, 'The Red Shoes' will always be there.

It's very easy to layer hyperbole upon 'The Red Shoes'. There isn't a single aspect of the film that doesn't reach perfection, that puts a step wrong. Calling it a miracle or a masterpiece comes naturally in the face of it. And yet, this kind of ecstatic praise almost risks cheapening it. No matter how many words I write, nothing I say can come close to capturing the experience of watching it. I've been haunted by it ever since first discovering it as a teenager, and every time I return to it, the power of it only deepens, my love for it enriched, the force of it all the greater. 'The Red Shoes' is a film of impossible beauty and overwhelming tragedy, expressing the inexpressible in ways that are still revelatory. It is cinema at its purest and its most impossible.

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