Movies I’ve Seen: The Red Shoes (1948)

I saw The Red Shoes about a week after seeing Talk to Her. The former uses dance front-and-center as its subject; the latter uses dance as a cinematic framework by which to view the world. Both are amazing movies; neither one is quite done justice by my commentary. But I try.

For the first hour, we see a temperamental ballet leader (Anton Walbrook) lead his troupe—the Ballet Lermontov—through the rehearsal and creation of his new ballet, The Red Shoes. Lermontov never smiles unless he’s being ironic, and never glances when he can glare rapaciously. He infuses his dancers, choreographers, orchestra, and set designers with the same fervor that he has. In particular, his composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is as tempestuous as Lermontov, and their increasingly tense exchanges charge the air. In between them, simmering, is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a redheaded beauty who dances astonishingly well. Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger use this bizarre love triangle as a crucible for their color-drenched masterpiece.

The movie is panoramic and intimate all at once. We see, seemingly in real-time, the rehearsals, set design, compositional work, orchestral practice, and delicate financial maneuverings that lead to a dance’s premiere. Powell and Pressburger focus on the hardship, pointing out that the dancer’s calling is hard, intense, and brutal, but they bathe this hard work in rich, luminous colors and brisk, witty repartee.

And then, midway through the movie, comes the dance. Up until this point, we’ve seen it only in fragments, as it’s being refined, dissected, and compressed. All this practice can’t prepare us for Page’s big solo. Shearer, with her red hair and long limbs, glows throughout The Red Shoes, but she positively radiates energy when she begins to dance. The directors leap right into fantasy as soon as her toes touch the floorboards. After showing the raw dailyness of the dancer’s life for so long, Powell and Pressburger decide to show us the dance, but not as it would have looked to the audience. Instead, they give us a vision of how it might have made the viewer feel, and what it could make one imagine. Their eyes, which had been mostly reportorial up until this point, become interpretive. Fantastic scenes overlap over her as she twirls, with imagery that could have come out of Lord of the Rings, and she flies and ignites the skies. By showing how dance approaches poetry, the directors have created poetry themselves. She dances through painted and drawn scenes—it’s a wonderful, conscious choice. Instead of editing it so that she dances on real landscapes, the multiple scenes she moves through are handcrafted scenes, places that don’t exist anywhere but in the mind until fleshed out on a canvas.

The 20-minute solo is the film’s centerpiece, but it by no means goes slack afterwards. Page struggles to choose between her love for Craster and her love of the stage, just as real artists must choose. Ultimately, though, the choice takes on mythic dimensions, and her art decides tragically for her. The movie fuses phantasmagoria with quotidian life. The Red Shoes is a fairy tale but, like the Hans Christian Andersen tale on which it’s based, it’s a tale carefully weighed down with the burdens of reality.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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