The Red Shoes

red+shoes[1]
The Red Shoes-Powell & Pressburger 1948
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).

With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’

As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the  rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, The Red Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.

The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.

At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’ 

Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:

Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is 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 street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.

Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime,  the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.

Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:

Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.

The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.

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95 thoughts on “The Red Shoes

  1. hmm, interesting. I watched part of that clip but it had some of my least favorite things in it, namely ballet and clowns. 😛 It sounds like an interesting movie though.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well it is a carnival scene so clowns are to be expected and it’s about more than the ballet… something I don’t really know a lot about (though I know a bit, because I know something about everything, you know me).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am not a big fan of ballet and don’t know much. I’ve seen various Nutcrackers but that’s it.
        Have a wonderful night, Mr. Cake. I know I have some posts to catch up on. Will do that this weekend. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Feverish, indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed the ballet sequence- especially since my ballet experience has been the more traditional sort, like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. And the story within a story layer upon layer adds an undercurrent to the whole. You’re left wondering how much one bleeds onto the other. I’ll have to watch the whole thing when I can. You’re so broad in scope, I can’t keep up with you!

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      1. Well it is kind of a cross between a Berkeley musical and an art movie but it was meant as a popular movie… it did really well in the States. The whole Symbolism idea is my suggestion, The characters are really just stereotypes but their are elevated in this movie, Vicky and Lermontov especially.

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    1. Russes with choreography by Nijinsky that caused a riot… for a brief while the ballet was at the cut ting edge of the avant garde, Cocteau and Picasso designed sets and Satie and Stravinsky composed for it. Diaghilev fired several dancers for having a love life, included Nijinsky and his wife.

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      1. I don’t think it is possible, the world has changed (for better and worse, I am not nostalgic for some golden era that never existed). Movies are a truly popular medium but the auteur reigns supreme. The Archers gave credit to everyone involved, the set designers and the cinematographers etc. As for the other arts it is about getting fame in your field.

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  3. I remember this, from when or where I can’t recall, but I know this story. I may have seen it, or read it. A very “careful what you wish for” kind of tale. And “be careful where and whom you buy your shoes from” tale. 🙂 And a very beautiful redhead, indeed. Have a nice weekend, Cake.

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      1. Very possible. I did a touch of ballet as a youth and will never forget the torture of the teacher pushing us with her foot from behind while our legs were spread wide against a wall. Gotta really love the dance to tolerate that. Long story short: I am not a ballerina.

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      2. Well the film raises questions of feminism as well. Lermontov can make her a great dancer but can’t make her happy while Craster can make her happy but not a great dancer. The men can have it all but the women can’t. And the shelf life for female dancers is very very short indeed.

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  4. While watching I couldn’t get past the hues of technicolor used. Brilliant muted shades of turquoise namely, but it was all of them really. The red just popped off the stage. Movement of this sort inspires me, yet it was because of every detail shared. You captured the film and captivated us through your eyes. Yeah, I loved everything about this clip. Thank you, Mr. Cake.

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    1. My pleasure, I would suggest watching the film, I always particularly love it when I have a high fever. Someone once said that technicolor was invented solely for this movie as it really is the peak of its use. I also like that the film (and it was a popular movie, not an art house production, with a big budget, lavish sets and special effects) so firmly took the side of art as opposed to duty, etc.

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      1. Martin Scorsese (it’s his favourite movie, also his film editor was married to Michael Powell) spearheaded a restoration which was released in 2009. The colours are lush. I did get rather carried away didn’t I, oh dear don’t want to lose my cool persona.

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      2. Lol! It is cool to get carried away! That shows passion. Scorsese is a bit of a wild card — there is more to him than gangsters and mafia. I will look for the 2009 version. I actually love the weird technicolor in movies like this.

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    1. I haven’t, though I quite like Kate Bush… I think it is because I love the movie so much that I didn’t want to see another interpretation, Vicky will always be Moira Shearer and Lermontov Anton Walbrook and Craster Marius Goring. Did I do the film justice Feather?

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      1. Don’t see the movie. I LOVE Kate Bush but it was ‘shameful shit’ to put it bluntly. She really messed it up. I think when you love something so much you are blinded to interpretation. I just absolutely love the original yes you did it justice without doubt, I cannot imagine a life where I have not seen that movie. The nearest comparison would be Anna Karrenina (the book) OR Madam Bovary (LOVE) OR Sunlight On Cold Water (Sagan) same feeling totally

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      2. Yes, there is so much to love about the movie. Also when she climbs the stairs to the villa. And when Lermontov smashes the mirror and his hair is out of place for the first time.

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      3. Hmmm Bovary isn’t nearly as likeable as Vicky, she just longs for romanticism and her end is shoddy and pathetic as opposed to Vicky who transforms her life into a work of art. But yes there is similarities. I like Madam Bovary, however naturalism isn’t my favourite genre, I prefer the purple prose and hypnotic cadences of Symbolism.

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      4. I think I just have a tendency to the recondite and the hermetic… which possibly says more about me than the actual world…I always tend to like minor writers as opposed to the major names… maybe because that is what I hope for, realistically

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      5. Well just like Alice I cannot honestly answer the caterpillar’s question. I have no idea who I am, and I am constantly surprised that other people believe in their own self created persona. I am a through going modernist in some respects.

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      6. Well I agree on some level, it’s almost hedonistic to know thy self, on the other hand if not now then when? I would agree I’m also surprised by others mostly though of their interpretation of myself and those around them, the arrogance of thinking they ‘know’ the intricacies of the individual and yet, it’s like anything without a hypothesis we cannot advance to theorize, without theory we are unable to query and muddle our way through to some semblance of consideration and moving forward?

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      7. Feather you must ignore me I watched too many avant garde films at an impressionable age and I keep on needing to be reminded that life isn’t an avant garde film. I would just query the whole idea of a solid stable self that seems to be an invention of fiction.

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      8. Life isn’t an avant garde film? CRUSH! 😉 I know what you mean. I used to be OBSESSED with certain genres, they were pretty childish but so was I (14 years old) but I loved road trip ideology like Paris Texas – the whole nine yards, the dystopia and the poverty and the ideals of getting lost – so I fully understand an obsession with a genre. I think I must have watched All Night Long about ten times. I wanted to live in the night and never wake to day. Avant garde is a way of being surreal in a world that isn’t – just like taking drugs. Heck if the drug E wasn’t bad for you and wasn’t illegal and expensive then I’d take it every day, I admit that’s very drone like and a real cop out but GOOD GRIEF

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      9. Hmmm I didnt realise americans called it E…i thought you called it X or Molly or something…some of my favourite movies are those sixties merging identity movies…namely Persona and Performance…please dont tell me the world isnt surreal, dont shatter my illusions!

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      1. You did indeed do the movie justice. Well done. I loved the link to YouTube. I’ve never been over fond of ballet (nor any other form of dance), but ballet comes over well on film with its close-ups and varying camera angles.

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