Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 16 March 2006
Michael Powell’s work as a director was so unique, so forward thinking that it’s only relatively recently that we’ve been able to come to terms with what it all means and how it all works. The Red Shoes is perhaps his masterpiece, certainly the peak of his talents as a purely visual artist. There are lessons here that filmmakers are still struggling to learn, 60 years after the fact.
The story was originally developed by Powell’s writing/ producing partner Emeric Pressburger ten years previously, combining elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous fairy tale with the classic Svengali/ Trilby / A Star Is Born plotline of an inexperienced ingénue torn between her lover and her art, personified in the form of an all-controlling, powermad creative mastermind. There is nothing radical in the plot: Moira Shearer plays Victoria Page, a talented ballet dancer who catches the eye of Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov, a director whose life is entirely consumed by his work. Marius Goring plays Julian Craster, a fresh- faced student composer who convinces Lermontov of his talents, writes him a ballet – The Red Shoes – then falls in love with the star. Their romance infuriates Lermontov, whose lust for control and artistic excellence drives the couple apart, and leads to Victoria’s death.
There were innumerable precedents for the story, both in art and real life—Diaghilev’s passionate relationship with Nijinsky, which ended with the latter’s decision to marry, must have been foremost in Pressburger’s mind. But what sets The Red Shoes apart is Powell’s direction, his heartfelt belief in the honest magic of artistry, both in film and on stage. The film could have been overwrought, flooded with bitter tears and ringing with recrimination, but Powell’s lightness of touch holds melodrama in check, at least until the sudden, shocking denouement. What we have is a film about art itself, what it means to be an artist—a real, passionate artist, and a real, passionate human being. At the beginning of the film, Lermontov asks Victoria why she wants to dance. Her reply: “Why do you want to live?” It is upon these questions that the film hangs, questions Powell is asking himself, and entreating the audience to do the same; why art? What does it mean? What does it gain us, and how much do we risk? But Powell, like Lermontov, already knows the answer, or knows that he does not know: “I can’t explain it… I simply must.”
The Red Shoes is perhaps a perfect film, in a way so few others are—a film that knows precisely what it wants to achieve, and wastes no time about it (other examples I would cite might include Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, Jaws). Every frame seems precise, even when the scene it depicts is chaotic. The colours are rich and lively, that indistinct early-colour vibrancy that works so well in the musical form (think of An American In Paris or Singin’ In The Rain, both of which owe a tremendous debt to Powell’s work here). Even the transitions are revolutionary: in the opening minutes of the film, a shot of the crowd waiting for the show to begin. The characters relax into their seats, the ambient sound shifts almost imperceptibly, an animated scroll across the bottom of the screen reads ‘45 minutes later’, and Powell moves us forward in time without breaking the shot. Such virtuosity repeats throughout the film, not only in the transitions but in the photography, the décor, even the costumes, from Vicky’s devilishly low cut number in the opening scenes to Lermontov’s ludicrous fly-eye sunglasses.
Words cannot begin to describe the centrepiece of the film, the ballet itself, The Red Shoes. Andersen’s original story concerns a peasant girl who turns away from friends, family and God in her single minded pursuit of a pair of beautiful red shoes, but when she dances the shoes refuse to stop until she has danced herself to death. The metaphors are obvious, but no less affecting for that: artistic obsession, creative blindness, the single minded pursuit of selfish goals, leading to inevitable downfall. But while the ballet lasts, these metaphors – indeed any sense of character, story, anything outside the arena of the purely visual – are forgotten.
As the sequence begins, Powell hoodwinks us. We’ve seen ballet on the screen before—Victoria danced Swan Lake earlier, and the film has been crowded with dancers and choreographers almost since the first frame. And now it happens again: the dancers take the stage, the audience settles in. The shoemaker flaunts his wares, and the poor peasant girl dreams of better things. But when Shearer notices the shoes, reality begins to slip. Another girl appears: a ghost in the shoemaker’s window – a reflection – but an idealised one. Then a jump cut interrupts proceedings—the shoemaker becomes Lermontov, if only for a moment. Then we realise the sets and backdrops are changing with impossible rapidity, and there are so many dancers—tens, hundreds of them. And suddenly it’s no longer a ballet we’re witnessing but something new, ballet and cinema, animation and painting, orchestra and theatre, music and motion and blurred colours, a dream in sounds and pictures, in thrall as much to Méliès and Monet – or Hitchcock, or Gershwin, or Dali, even Disney – as to Mozart and Nijinsky. The vision of a genius – Lermontov or Powell? – whole and unfettered, and indescribably beautiful.
Powell understands Victoria’s passion and Julian’s nobility, but it is Lermontov to whom he clearly gravitates—the unwilling but unrepentant villain, undone by his own blind integrity. His allegiance to this character would reach an unholy zenith in his portrayal of the twisted father in Peeping Tom a decade later, cinema’s most naked confession of it’s own perversity, and Powell’s blackest joke.
After the ballet comes romance and retribution, and the cataclysmic finale, as the shoes carry a distraught Victoria over the balcony and into the path of an oncoming train, an ambiguous suicide; is she running for Julian, or does she really intend to end her life? Contemporary critics felt this ending to be over baked and unnecessary, and there is an element of excess that the film has largely managed to avoid up to this point. But how else could it have worked; this is Hans Christian Andersen’s story as much as Powell and Pressburger’s, so the heroine has to die. The closing scene, as the ballet is replayed without Shearer, just a spotlight to mark her place, is one of the most eloquent depictions of loss in all of cinema: the show goes on, but the centre is missing, and the stage feels empty without her.
Despite the tragedy of its conclusion, The Red Shoes remains gloriously life-affirming, though never simplistically so: it urges us to question our choices, our obsessions and our loves. As such it stands as fitting tribute to the great Moira Shearer, who passed away six weeks before the writing of this review, and to Powell himself, whose work is gradually achieving the reverence it deserves.