Successful art is defined by its ability to transform, to transcend. To take us beyond thin paper pages bound into a novel to the world beyond, to surpass men and women playing make-believe to something true. All art is built on artifice, but great art makes you forget about the brushstrokes, the actors, the instruments …and takes you somewhere else.
The centrepiece of The Red Shoes is a miraculous realisation of such potential, a ballet performance that soars off the stage into surrealist splendour. It’s bracingly surprising and utterly amazing, and to explain it would be to spoil the experience for those who’ve yet to see the film, how it dances off the screen possessing all the beauty that resonates from Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) as she leaps and pirouettes and twirls. Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger succeed in capturing the transformative power of ballet through the transformative power of film.
By itself, this glorious sequence would be enough to classify The Red Shoes as a great film, but thankfully it is surrounded by greatness, cleaving in two a story that examines both the challenges of achieving success and the perils that such success can bring. One of the reasons that this display resonates is that it’s the only time, really, that Vicky is free throughout the entire film. She’s unencumbered, a flower in the breeze or a cloud in the sky … but once she floats back to earth, she is increasingly constrained – on the surface, by the demands of the ballet, but really she’s tied by the bonds of patriarchy.
I’m not sure how much of that subtext is deliberate, or merely a product of a different time, but it’s instructive to watch the “rise” half of The Red Shoes from a modern vantage point. The first act of the film relates the ascent of both Vicky and Julian Craster (Marius Goring), an arrogant student who becomes the composer of “The Red Shoes.”
Each must court the attention of Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the imperious head of the well-regarded ballet company that becomes the setting for most of the film, give or take a railway station or two. Craster comes to Lermontov’s attention by confronting him with the plagiarism of his composer at the time – Craster’s professor at university – and his combination of raw talent and assertiveness earn him a hasty rise up the ranks of the company.
But only men are expected to stand up for themselves, to assert their own talents. When Vicky attempts the same – her mother inviting Lermontov to a party as a thin excuse for an audition – Lermontov reacts with disdain, rejecting the very notion of being conned into an audition (he’s happy enough for Craster to play piano at his breakfast, however). The only reason Vicky ends up in the company at all is through a carefully choreographed flirtation with Lermontov at the bar; it’s not her (substantial) talents that earn her recognition, but her “feminine wiles” (ugh). When she arrives for rehearsal on her first day, she is shuffled off with another group of young woman who have attracted Lermontov’s attention – Hays Code or no, the insinuation is hard to miss, especially when Lermontov finds the decision of his prima ballerina (Ludmilla Tchérina) to marry unforgivable.
Vicky’s performance in “The Red Shoes” earns her adoration and respect, but not freedom, not once the performance has ended and she floats back to earth. Her ballet might provide an escape for the audience, yet her newfound fame binds her tighter to the men around her. A romance with Craster sees the two of them dismissed from Lermontov’s ballet; but while Craster goes on to thrive, writing a successful ballet, Vicky is expected to serve as a the dutiful wife despite her substantial talents. The film builds to a climax that sees her torn between Lermontov’s company and dancing and her love for Craster, but it’s a false dichotomy, a choice that she shouldn’t have to make. The Red Shoes demonstrates how spectacular Vicky’s abilities truly are – not just by telling us, as so many films do, but by showing us – and yet her choice fundamentally comes down to which man she will defer to. The choice she makes is devastating, but not incomprehensible.
There’s more to The Red Shoes than Vicky’s tragic arc; a lot more. The film captures the scope and scale of a thriving ballet company in vibrant Technicolor, the camera roving through densely-packed rehearsal holes and over dimly-lit orchestra pits. The focus is undeniably the love triangle of Vicky, Julian and Boris and it is within this triangle that the most powerful moments reside, but the film is a moving, often joyful experience thanks to the bustling life of Lermontov’s company, the little idiosyncrasies and big moments of drama that twirl and caper with a gorgeous messiness that’s in stark contrast to the disciplined dancing on display.
The Red Shoes is a truly marvellous movie, at once intimately personal and broadly sprawling. It’s a realisation of the temptation of art, the intoxication of art, the power of art to lift us up and throw us down and consume us in its hungry maw. A true masterpiece.