This week, I would like to talk about another of my childhood favorites: The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I saw this film when I was quite young and it has stayed with me throughout the years. There is something addictive to it that pushes me to watch it over and over again. The fascination never withers away. It is to me the best film ever made about art and artists.
Moira Shearer makes her acting debut as Victoria Page in this film. The directors were looking for a real-life dancer for the part as well as someone who could act well and who was devastatingly beautiful. When Stewart Granger mentioned Shearer to them, Powell and Pressburger were thrilled, though it took them a whole year to convince the dancer to do the picture. With her pale skin and her red hair, Shearer looks just like a princess in a fairytale. Anton Walbrook plays the terrifying Boris Lermontov, the one who will shape Victoria according to his taste, the one who will make her famous, and also the one who will cause her ruin.
Victoria Page and Boris Lermontov
In the film, the dance company is creating a ballet called The Red Shoes, adapted from the fairytale by Andersen: out of vanity, a girl buys a pair of red shoes, but as she puts them on, the shoes start to take control of her body and force the girl to dance. In the ballet of the film, the girl dances until she dies out of exhaustion. In Andersen’s tale, the girl has her feet cut off to stop dancing, but even separated from her body, the two feet continue to dance in the shoes.
Powell and Pressburger were attentive to keep the aesthetics of the fairytale: black for darkness and authority, white for innocence and purity, and red for passion and blood – these are the main color trends of the film that help establish an uncanny atmosphere.
The Ballet of The Red Shoes
There is also a beautiful homage to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, when Vicky dresses like a princess to go and meet Lermontov. Alone in the enormous property, walking up the majestic steps, she looks just like the Beauty, on her way to meet the Beast. Only this time, there is no Prince Charming hidden underneath, but a man consumed by his art.
The 15-minute ballet of the film is beautifully done. The incredibly talented Jack Cardiff sublimates the colors, and one marvels at the fluidity with which the camera follows the dancers. Powell and Pressburger artfully mix beauty with horror. More than once, you find yourself shivering when you realize the fate that awaits the young girl dancing with the red shoes. It is through the use of close-ups on the eyes that the directors reveal the state of mind of their characters. In Black Narcissus, Sister Ruth’s madness is revealed through the flame of desire in her eyes – a truly terrifying moment. Here, it is Vicky’s infinite despair, as she understands that she has to make a choice. When he first meets Vicky, Lermontov asks her: “Why do you want to dance?” and the dancer replies: “Why do you want to live?” But what can you do when you need to choose between what makes you live, and life itself?
How right Michael Powell was when he wrote in his autobiography:
“The world is hungry for art. The Red Shoesis an insolent, haunting picture, in the way it takes for granted that nothing matters but art, and that art is something worth dying for.”