The Red Shoes, 1948.
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Starring Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and Moira Shearer.
A love triangle forms between three members of a ballet company. Their production of an old fairy-tale, The Red Shoes, frames their torment.
I’ve seen the actual red shoes Moira Shearer wore in the film. They were on loan to the BFI sometime last year from Martin Scorsese. They looked a little battered and frayed, as though they were sad. I thought this before I’d even seen the film from where they came. Now they’re even more imbued with tragedy.
The Red Shoes is based on Han Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale of the same name. Anderson’s story was about a young girl who became obsessed with a pair of red shoes. She’d go everywhere in them, ignoring church and her ill mother. After attending a party, however, the shoes wouldn’t let her feet stop dancing. They seal themselves tightly to her, and, out of desperation, she has her feet amputated. But still the shoes pester her. They dance nearby with her amputated feet inside, blocking her way to church.
The Red Shoes is about a ballet performance of Andersons ‘Red Shoes’. It’s a meta-film, flicking between the two realities of the ballet itself and the rehearsals of the performance.
The stars of both are the young dancer, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), and the ballet company’s impresario, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). “Why do you want to dance?” Lermontov asks Vicky when they first meet. “Why do you want to live?” she replies. “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but…I must.” “That’s my answer, too.” Later on, in a similar conversation, Vicky is asked what is it that she wants from life, “to live?”. “To dance,” is her simple reply. Not to love, not to be happy, but to dance.
Perhaps this is why Lermontov invests so much of his time in her. He’s recently lost his previous prima ballerina to marriage, to love. If you want to be truly great, Lermontov argues, you can’t be compromised by emotion. He does not deny human nature, he reasons after firing his old prima ballerina, but he can ignore it.
And he ignores it for so long – for such a time, and so deeply – that he is completely unaware of Vicky’s affair with the ballet company’s composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). And, so well he ignored it, he has denied his own human nature. Lermontov is in love with Vicky.
Both realisations, of the affair and his hidden love, come at once. There is a dinner party to celebrate the company’s performance of the Red Shoes. The table is full of the various characters from the company, drinking and eating and laughing. Lermontov, too, allows himself a rare smile, the pressure of a first performance no longer bearing on his shoulders. But then he sees Vicky and Craster, and he knows. The camera shoots him almost straight on, his eyes welling up in a liquid rage.
He disguises his jealousy as some high professionalism, reiterating the cold mantras he declared at the beginning – One cannot be great if compromised by love! – so Craster is fired, and Vicky departs soon after. The company goes into free-fall and Lermontov becomes a recluse. Craster finds success with his own ballets. Vicky doesn’t dance again, until Lermontov tempts her to one last performance.
Every frame could hang in a gallery. Technicolor can often be crude, but Jack Cardiff smudges the various shades into each other. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan does not only reference the film’s narrative – specific visuals are also echoed. One is a spinning point-of-view shot from the perspective of Vicky as she pirouettes in a performance. The camera stops each time she reaches the front, the eyes briefly sticking on those in the audience. Each turn shows Lermontov a little closer. It’s one of those profound shots in cinema where the effects of style contribute deeply to the understanding of narrative and character. Some films can be wildly visually innovative, others tell great stories. To merge the two is something special.
And there’s the heart-breaking question that underpins the entire film: to achieve true personal success, must you sacrifice love? “What do you want from life? To live?”
Not to live, nor love, but to dance till death.
365 Days, 100 Films