The Red Shoes
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marion Goring, Léonide Massine
The Red Shoes was a dance, dance revolution for its time. Produced by Powell and Pressburger (together known as “The Archers”), The Red Shoes stands alongside Black Narcissus and The Tales of Hoffman as one of their greatest works. Top filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg have each expressed deep love for this movie. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked the film as its country’s fifth-best movie ever. The Red Shoes holds a 97% critics score as well as a 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1/10 on IMDb.
Separately, The Red Shoes is a box-office anomaly, especially for its time. Poorly advertised in its home country of the U.K., the film resiliently performed a “relevé,” becoming the sixth-highest-grossing picture of the year. This performance intrigued Universal, and The Red Shoes received a wide release in America in 1951–whereupon the film grossed $5 million (the equivalent of $60 million today), becoming the (at the time) highest grossing British film ever.
As of this writing, the double writers/actors strike is still ongoing, with studios beginning to push blockbusters out to next year. This month, consequently, I’ll be covering movies about performing arts. Without further ado, I present September’s theme:
September on the Stage
The Red Shoes came to my attention a few months back when I was going down a rabbit hole of experts weighing in on realism in movies regarding their respective field. Former mob operatives rating gangster movies, former CIA agents rating spy movies, former bank robbers rating heist movies–no topic was off limits. Among this ill-advised late-night video overload was a ballet choreographer rating dance films such as Black Swan and Save the Last Dance. She featured The Red Shoes, explaining the supergroup convergence of 1940s ballet stars and its significance.
Uncultured plebeian that I was, I looked up the film’s legacy and immediately added it to my watchlist. The real question, however, is if you should add it to yours.
Through networking and bold action, Victoria Page, an aspiring ballet dancer, joins the Ballet Lermontov, the premiere British company of its time, known throughout Western Europe as well. Headed by The-Devil-Wears-Prada-esque Boris Lermontov, the company begins its new season, featuring the prima donna Irina Boronskya. Plans change, however, when Boronskya marries. Lermontov despises artists who put their career on hold for love, so, after seeing Victoria dance at a matinee performance in a different troupe, he promotes Ms. Page to become the lead in their next show, The Red Shoes.
Commissioned to write the score for The Red Shoes is Julian Craster, a prodigious upstart who has also worked hard to become the conductor’s accompanist. Between Julian’s brilliant score and Victoria’s brilliant dancing, the two create a sublime performance–to which we, the audience, are treated!
That’s right! The movie’s plot fully stops for 17 minutes, as Ballet Lermontov performs The Red Shoes.
Afterwards, Lermontov openly admits to Victoria that he believes she will be the greatest dancer of all time, provided she stick with him, naturally. Unbeknownst to Boris, however, is the consequence of his brilliant pairing: Victoria and Julian have fallen in love. They grew to admire each other during The Red Shoes rehearsal process. Everyone knows Lermontov despises love, but how will he react when he has no one to blame but himself for the outcome?
Sumptuous with an undertone of horror, The Red Shoes kept me watching and wouldn’t let me stop. Though I felt the movie’s length, it never exhausted me because some new cinematic technique would leap across the screen whenever my eyelids thought about getting heavy. Unexpected chyrons, panic-inducing point-of-view shots, bizarre metafiction commentaries: The Red Shoes fascinates 75 years on with its innovative storytelling.
The most innovative decision of all, though, is the literal showstopper ballet sequence at the halfway point. While a small part of me wondered why the movie would make such a bizarre pacing decision, the rest of me was ecstatic that I got to see everything the ballet company worked so hard to produce. Even more interesting is that The Red Shoes makes its titular ballet for ONLY us. Instant transitions between stages, jump cuts from newspaper cutout man to real man with newspaper-print tattoos (see above), and impressionistic reflections are techniques that can only happen in a motion picture. As such, the movie cleverly fuses ballet to film by taking advantage of the cinematic medium.
This sequence is such a tour de force that I felt the romantic drama of the second half predictable and pale by comparison–that is, until the ending. Only minutes before the end, when The Red Shoes laces together the disparate plot threads it had carefully been choreographing, did I see the mark to where the movie had been leaping. Boldly genre-bending for its time, The Red Shoes kicked me in the face, leaving one heck of a mark. Though I left the show bruised, I’ll soon be back to watch a repeat performance.
Try to deny it if you like, but you’ll be under its spell soon enough! Anyone who enjoys films about psychologically tortured artists likely enjoyed stories that The Red Shoes inspired. Black Swan, Suspiria, Perfect Blue–all these and more come from The Red Shoes’ lineage.
Though this movie will delight fans of psychological horror, its appeal is also much broader. First, because many of the disturbing elements are implied or lurking under the surface, those who normally cannot stomach horror won’t mind (or may not even notice) the genre’s presence. Second, the music, performance, and romance elements cater to a much different audience than fans of thrillers and chillers. Third, the ballet that the company produces is based off a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, so the film has plenty of opportunity for surreal imagery and fantasy elements, attracting a demographic that might not normally watch a romance film or a musical. Fourth, the symbolism, cinematic techniques, and metafiction angle appeals to cinephiles as well as viewers seeking complex themes. Finally, its nostalgia and expertly restored technicolor will bring in older viewers as well as younger ones who would normally be put off by black-and white or grainy film stock.
Basically, The Red Shoes has something for everyone. 75 years has done nothing to dim its shine nor sap its energy. I dare you to find a dance movie that leaps higher.