Film Reviews (Seriously) Redux – THE RED SHOES
On September 19, 2011, on a now-defunct personal blog, I published this FR (S) review of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes . Given its recent airing on TCM as part of that network’s 31 Days of Oscar celebration, I thought I’d repost it here. Thanks for reading (or re-reading). – Michael
Tune into TV stations VH1 or E! at any given time, and you’re likely to find a show about the career of a famous celebrity. The show usually starts with that star’s humble beginnings, followed by his/her struggles to achieve fame, the bad breaks, the lucky breaks, the big chance, the success and its spoils, and the trip back to Earth that takes 1/100th of the time it took to get to the celebrity stratosphere in the first place. Long before these types of shows became as routine in appearance as the local news, Hollywood created numerous films about the making and breaking of celebrities, both fictional and factual.
From the world of make-believe came films ranging from 42nd Street (1933) and A Star is Born (1954) to That Thing You Do! (1996) and Rock Star (2001). Real-life stories include The Glenn Miller Story (1953), The Buddy Holly Story (1978), La Bamba (1987), and Great Balls of Fire! (1989). But while these and others follow the familiar three-act formula of struggle, triumph, and tragedy, The Red Shoes (1948), from directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, tells a similar tale, but one injected with an impressive dose of psychological insight, an obscure love triangle, and a fifteen minute ballet. Plus, the film uses a fairy tale not only as a source for adaptation, but as its key plot-point as well.
Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) is the director of the world-class and world-famous ballet troupe, Ballet Lermontov. To the public, he is sophisticated and unapproachable, which comes with being a genius, but to his dancers and his musicians, he is rude and demanding, which also comes with being a genius. However he is viewed, all will agree that he has a keen eye and ear for talent, and will only employ the best. Among the hundreds in attendance at his latest production are aspiring composer Julian Craster (Goring) and aspiring dancer Victoria Page (Shearer), but they are strangers at the time. Julian and Victoria meet the elusive Lermontov individually, but each meeting takes place under circumstances that are less than comfortable.
After the show, Lermontov is persuaded to attend a party at Victoria’s aunt’s house. When he learns that the motive behind his invitation was to watch Victoria dance, he arrogantly refuses to watch her, yet he remains at the party and heads for the bar. It is there that he meets an attractive young woman, and he complains to her about people always wanting to audition for him and what a nuisance it is. When she introduces herself as Victoria Page, Lermontov removes the foot from his mouth and offers her an audition. He hires her to dance in a supporting capacity.
Julian’s entrée into Lermontov’s company is a little more serious. During that night’s show, Julian recognized that some of the music played was original music he had written, and that had been stolen by his former teacher. The next morning, Julian confronts Lermontov, who, in exchange for forgetting the whole plagiarism issue, offers a job to Julian as an orchestra coach. Starving for the chance, Julian accepts Lermontov’s terms.
The dancer and the composer pay their dues in their minor roles, but they are always under Lermontov’s watchful eye. Then Lermontov introduces Julian to a story that will change the trio’s lives: “The Red Shoes.” He explains the story with this dialogue:
“The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans [Christian] Andersen. ‘Tis the story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance – at first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets 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 streets. 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 dance on.
Lermontov’s plan is for Julian to write the music for his new production, and for Victoria to dance the lead. The ballet is a smash success, catapulting Julian and Victoria to superstar status. As more ballets lead to greater successes, Julian and Victoria find themselves drawn to each other, much to Lermontov’s chagrin. Ultimately, Victoria must choose between her love for Julian and her love of dance.
First, a confession. I do not care for ballet. Mostly it has to do with my lack of knowledge about, and exposure to, the subject (children’s dance recitals not withstanding). I don’t bash the art; I’m simply at maximum ambivalence. With this in mind, the first time I sat down to watch The Red Shoes, I did so with some trepidation, wondering how I would enjoy a movie about ballet that runs over two hours long. I must admit that I was wonderfully surprised, and thinking back, I don’t know why I should have been, given that this film is directed by the immensely talented duo of Powell and Pressburger, collectively known as “The Archers.”
The fact that the story takes place in the world of ballet is almost meaningless, other than its connection to the Hans Christian Andersen story, and the “ballet within a movie.” One could remove the ballet aspect and substitute it with many other things: sports, art, music, etc. This is because the film is not about ballet; it’s about love and sacrifice and obsession.
Victoria Page is obsessed with dancing. When asked by Lermontov why she wants to dance, her reply to him, without thought or hesitation, is, “Why do you want to live?” It’s this pure love of her chosen craft that first attracts Lermontov to her. She’s not in it for money, fame, or travel, and when she meets with the success that she always knew she would, she does not become complacent or snobbish (like her predecessor). She maintains the same intense level of enthusiasm and desire that got her there. The same can be said about Julian Craster and his music. He didn’t exploit the plagiarism issue to blackmail Lermontov into giving him a job; he was being protective of the thing he loves most – his music – the way a parent would be obsessively protective of a child. He, too, refuses to lower his desire and his drive as he finds continued success.
Victoria and Julian connect to create the film’s love interest, which is essential in creating the conflict that comes into play later, but The Archers are smart enough to make sure that the relationship evolves at the right pace. Victoria and Julian are like corporate coworkers who work on the same project, but from different departments. Their paths cross because of their common goal, but their direct interaction is almost non-existent. Then, “The Red Shoes” comes along, and when it does, they are more at odds than in love, each insisting that the other make changes for the overall ballet to work well.
Lesser filmmakers would have had the two connecting on the first day of their respective assignments, thus making the love story the film’s focal point, but The Archers recognize that the characters’ love is a byproduct of the characters’ work, so the work must come first. Victoria and Julian’s relationship is almost one of default, given the time they have to meet other people (hardly any), their common work interests, and their equality as superstars. (Why do you think celebrities marry each other so often in real live?)
Lermontov’s obsession is initially with himself. He does not look at his dancers as dancers or his musicians as musicians, but instead he looks at them all as his creations. And because to himself he is God, his word is final, and any allowances he makes he sees as great favors bestowed upon the subservient. But his obsession shifts when he watches Victoria dance at her old theater (a performance, by the way, that Lermontov “allowed”), prior to “The Red Shoes.”
This trip “home” for Victoria is akin to a Kevin Spacey-caliber actor returning to his hometown community theater to act in one performance of “Death of a Salesman.” As Victoria dances here, Lermontov, who is in the crowd, is mesmerized by her. As we, the film’s viewers, watch her performance, it’s painfully obvious that the backup dancers are not that good, and we are shown that the music is piped into the theater via a record on an old turntable. This sounds almost comedic, but I think The Archers over-exaggerated the peripherals to allow those of us who know nothing about ballet to see and hear what Lermontov sees and hears: other music is tin-sounding compared to his orchestra, and other dancers are clumsy oafs compared to his dancers. There are also some wonderfully dizzying shots from Victoria’s perspective as she pirouettes. The crowd is a spinning blur, but Lermontov, who represents Victoria’s ultimate goal, is always in focus.
As Victoria and Julian grow even closer in their relationship, Lermontov becomes increasingly jealous. But jealous of what? Lermontov coldly dismissed the last dancer over whom he obsessed (who left the ballet for a man). Why did he do this? He knew that something better would come along. It always had, and he thought that it always would. But not so with Victoria. Lermontov’s jealousy of Victoria’s relationship with Julian is not borne of his love for Victoria the person, but instead his love for Victoria the dancer – his greatest creation. As she drifts further away from the dance and deeper into Julian’s arms, Lermontov becomes more unraveled. This is sinisterly depicted by the Archers in shots of Lermontov’s eyes; shots that are reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s eyes as she lost her mental grip in The Archers’ Black Narcissus (1947). A final emotional confrontation leads to results reminiscent of the end of Black Narcissus as well.
Of course, the film is called The Red Shoes for more than just its connection to the fairy tale. In the middle of the film is a fifteen-minute presentation of “The Ballet of the Red Shoes.” I knew that this was coming, and due to my lack of enthusiasm for ballet, I wasn’t looking forward to it, but after watching it, I couldn’t get over just how amazing it was. Rather than merely throw in a ballet segment for the sake of padding a “ballet movie,” The Archers, while telling the actual fairy tale, use the graceful art of ballet, their usual blast of lush color, and some eye-popping imagery to let us see what Victoria’s character, “The Dancer,” sees, and to let us crawl around inside Victoria’s head to get a vividly clear idea of what this opportunity means to her. The segment is so well done that it plays like a good silent picture; no dialogue is needed to tell us all there is to tell.
The Archers take what appears to be a simple story, load it with drama and clever (yet meaningful) symbolism, and wrap it in color so rich, you might try to adjust your TV set once the movie is over and you return to whatever else is on.