#237 The Red Shoes

(1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

“A dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer”

Ballet is an obsessive art, as has been pointed out many times over the years. One of the more recent works to demonstrate this was the excellent Black Swan, where Natalie Portman steadily lost her mind due to her obsessive dedication to her dreams of being a great dancer. But it’s not a new story. Back in 1948, The Archers produced a movie about ballet and tied it into Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tale of vanity, The Red Shoes.

The Red Shoes stars Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, a girl who wants to become a great ballet dancer. After being snapped up by top ballet producer Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook) where she is eventually cast as lead dancer in a ballet based on the aforementioned fairy tale. The music is being composed by a talented young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and he and Page begin a romantic affair. However, due to the demands of Lermentov, Page must choose between Craster and her career as a dancer.

I’m not a ballet fan. While I certainly appreciate the difficulty of being a great ballet dancer, I just find the actual performances pretty dull. So imagine my joy at an entire section of the movie dedicated to Vicky Page’s star-making ballet performance. That’s right, we basically see the entirety of the Red Shoes ballet as part of the movie’s plot.

That said, while it’s about as interesting to me as ballet typically is, it is at least visually impressive. The backdrops, makeup and costume design all present an almost surrealist vibe, and it’s an interesting watch for this alone. I’ll even let it slide that much of what is presented in the ballet couldn’t possibly work on stage, such as green screen effects, since the effect is pretty impressive.

That said, while The Red Shoes is certainly interesting visually, it tends to not feel very interesting in other ways. The movie suffers slightly from an ultra-stiff Britishness that makes everything feel very flat. There isn’t really much drama in the rising success of either Page or Craster, and so the first hour of the movie just seems determined to rush them into a position of success with little conflict. The acting is also so dry that it makes me suspect that there may have been conflict, but everyone was being so twee and polite that it was hard to tell.

When conflict does enter the equation, it centres on the relationship between Page and Craster versus Lermentov’s controlling nature demanding that she stay in the ballet company and to not get involved with anyone. The problem is, the relationship isn’t set up very well at all. After a brief conversation early on in the movie, the two barely communicate with each other for much of the running time, until eventually it’s revealed at a party that they’ve been pawing each other.

This meant that I found it difficult to really identify with the relationship and feel any kind of emotional reaction to the turmoil surrounding it. When the entire movie’s central conflict is revealed almost as an aside in a much less interesting scene, it’s a problem.

I also struggled to connect with the conflict in another way. I understood Lermentov being controlling and cruel, but I didn’t understand why not being in his company prevented her from dancing at all. Surely there were other ballet companies she could be employed by, especially as she gains a household name for herself? The movie even states that she has no exclusive contract with Lermentov aside from The Red Shoes, so why couldn’t she join the Royal Ballet in London or something?

It was almost maddening that this rather large issue failed to get addressed, making the climactic scene of the movie, where Vicky is forced to choose what she wants, feel a little too melodramatic and borderline silly when in a sensible world, she could have easily just worked with another producer, especially with the level of fame she achieved off the back of The Red Shoes performance.

Truth is, The Red Shoes was much like the art of ballet itself – occasionally very impressive to look at, but overall quite dull and vague in its intentions.

Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook & Marius Goring
Written by Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tale), Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and Keith Winter
Produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Music by Brian Easdale
Cinematography by Jack Cardiff
Edited by Reginald Mills

Favourite Scene: The ballet scene was visually impressive, which I never thought I would say.
Scene That Bugged Me: The entire melodrama of the final scenes. Work with another company! It’s not that difficult! Why is this one company so goddamn important when the director is clearly a boorish oaf that doesn’t respect his dancers?!

Watch it if: You like ballet and surreal melodrama
Avoid it if: You don’t really understand the central conflict at all

Posted on November 22, 2013, in 1940s, Drama, Musical, Romance, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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