Favourite Films: The Red Shoes (1948)

This technicolour wonderland is one of the best (if not the best!) film in the history of British cinema. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, It’s become known as a masterpiece and is constantly an inspiration for many artists alike and with good reason. Following Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a ballerina who joins a troupe as the lead in the new ballet The Red Shoes. She begins to find a conflict between her professional relationship with the insufferable genius, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and a personal romantic relationship with the troupe’s composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Soon enough, the ballet of The Red Shoes begins to seep into Victoria’s reality and she is eventually broken down by the idealisations that are expected of her. This is a film that breaks the boundaries of the filmmaking experience. It’s very premise of the ballet within the reality of the film soon becomes blurred and the tone of the film changes from a basic aspirational drama to a psychological thriller. Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale but given an original makeover by The Archers (as Powell and Pressburger were collectively known), this film delves into the dark side that fairytales ventured into which is a contrast to the Disney films that were dominating the global market. Even 70 years on, the topics in the film feel just as relevant today.

The Archers’ brilliant direction and script effectively contrast the freedom of dance with the claustrophobia and obsession with perfection. Nothing sums this film up more perfectly than Vicky and Boris’ first exchange:

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, er, but I must.

Vicky: That’s my answer too.

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Dancing gives Vicky the freedom that she craves but unbeknownst to her in the beginning that the freedom she “gains” from dancing for Lermontov is merely his vision. He is the puppet master pulling the strings. As Vicky grows closer to Julian and begins to finesse her own skills, she begins to resist and she finds herself no longer wanting to dance but unable to rid herself of the red shoes. The ballet sequence in which we see Vicky encapsulate her character and venture into the nightmare world of the dance is horrific. Her own emotions have merged with the character. Her dancing has become her life force. Then there’s the conflict she has between Julian who is an aspiring musician who is working for pennies and has the freedom to create the material he wants and then Lermontov who requires strict control over the whole operation. I think it is to Powell and Pressburger’s credit that they manage to succeed in creating three entirely different yet well-rounded characters who all have their motives and flaws. It’s a film that feels progressive even now and doesn’t belong to a particular time. It’s reluctance to slot into a specific genre is also reflective of this as it is a drama, thriller, horror, dance piece all in one.

I think that Shearer’s performance is one of my favourites in any film. She shines as Vicky and really brings out the talent and the grandeur of the role. Despite her privilege (we first see her sat in a private box watching the ballet), Vicky shows her natural passion and talent which impresses Lermontov who initially dismisses her because of her background. Despite Vicky’s flair for ballet, she is still an outsider as her fellow dancers clearly do not have the luxuries that she has. No scene depicts this better than when she thinks she is going to dinner and is dressed to the nines complete with a tiara, only to find the men running the ballet planning the next production in casual attire. Vicky is by no means a perfect individual either. She throws a tantrum when she is unable to keep up with Julian’s tempo during rehearsal. Vicky and Julian’s relationship develops as they realise that they are two sides of the same coin which Lermontov despises. The complexities of Lermontov’s character makes him one of my favourite “villains” film history. His obsession dehumanises those around him, none more so than prima ballerina, Irina Boronskaya (Ludmilla Tchérina) who is abandoned by Lermontov when she announces her engagement. The people around Lermontov are dehumanised puppets where his ambitions must become their ambitions. The moment there is any hint of a life outside the ballet, they are exonerated and in Lermontov’s eyes, they never even existed. His unapologetic way of life is challenged by Vicky and the climatic scene shows a crack in the façade as he breaks down onstage and forces the production to commence without her. The vision becomes empty and the audience gazes at a moving spotlight as it flutters around the stage where Vicky should be.

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The music composed by Brian Easdale is nothing short of extraordinary and it effortlessly dances the line between the ballet production and the film reality until eventually both worlds merge into one. The music used in the production of The Red Shoes is spectacular with the church scene in particular remaining a highlight for me. I get chills every time I watch that segment and hear the constant bell as the lead is abandoned and left to die. Jack Cardiff’s choreography for the film is a perfect marriage for the score and the two sail on through the film and set the pace. These components are representative of Julian and Vicky’s talents and the importance of the part that they play into the film cannot be unrecognised. One of my favourite aspects of the film is Hein Heckroth‘s costumes designs. The moment when Vicky’s costume for the ballet of The Red Shoes is revealed is breathtaking and it’s one of my favourite costumes in film. Not to mention the incredible costumes that Vicky wears throughout and the clothes designed by Carven for Irina are exceptional.

My love for this film grows with every view and even thinking about it now, it’s incredible how much it has shaped my taste in film and been such a huge influence in my creativity. It’s such a beautiful film that deserves more than one watch and I think it should be on every film lover’s watch list if they haven’t already seen it. It truly deserves its masterpiece status and remains an important part of cinema history.

What do you think of The Red Shoes? Let me know in the comments below!

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