The Red Shoes -1948 – dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
“Why do you want to dance?” asks Anton Walbrook as the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov in an early scene of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes. “Why do you want to live?” is the immortal reply from flame-haired Moira Shearer’s Victoria Page, her words pinpointing the themes that The Red Shoes holds closest to its heart. That moment, and the film as whole, has carried incredible resonance for those who make or love art of any kind, those who see little to no difference between the will to create and the will to live.
Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece has secured its place in film history not simply because of its irresistible Technicolor visuals (“Everything seems transposed straight from the illustrations of a children’s fairytale book,” critic Mark Connelly writes in his study of the film.) or its heady, highly influential ballet sequence, which lasts nearly fifteen minutes (though either of those features might have made the film a worthy object of admiration and study.). Rather, The Red Shoes remains so compelling, and so troubling (at least for me) because of its startling, archetypal dramatization of its heroine’s conflicting passions. Shearer’s Victoria Page, unable to fully devote herself to her art or to her love affair with a young composer, is left no choice but to self-destruct.
“The message of the film was Art. Nothing mattered but Art,” Powell writes in his autobiography. But while Powell’s instantly quotable explanation complements the exchange between Lermotov and Vicky well, it deserves a bit of unpacking. The Red Shoes’ view of what it means to make art is strikingly tragic (or melodramatic, depending on who you’re asking), and its brutality is only magnified when one considers The Red Shoes in relation to the film that most strongly bears its influence: Vincent Minnelli’s Academy Award-winner An American in Paris. Like The Red Shoes, Minnelli’s film is a sumptuous, dreamlike visual experience, alive with hyperreal Technicolor and best remembered for its lengthy ballet sequence. But while American in Paris is obviously patterned after Powell and Pressburger’s blueprint, it never descends into the kind of tragedy that seems so inevitable for Vicky. In fact, rather than drawing a sharp divide between romantic devotion and devotion to one’s art, An American in Paris seems more interested in blurring the lines entirely, with Gene Kelly playing a painter and dancing through a series of Impressionist-inspired setpieces before landing his beloved Leslie Caron for keeps; the two lovers end the film in an ecstatic clinch as Gershwin swells on the soundtrack, and the audience has no reason to believe that Kelly can’t have it all. Of course, the stark contrast between the two films is in part due to their origins: Powell and Pressburger were working outside of Hollywood and drawing from a tragic Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, while An American in Paris, for all of its highbrow touches, was always intended as a crowd-pleaser with broad appeal.
The significance of gender in The Red Shoes is also well worth considering (Rosanna Arquette went so far as to frame her film about women’s struggles to balance family and career in Hollywood, Searching for Debra Winger, with scenes from The Red Shoes.) Connelly succinctly introduces the film’s intriguing and problematic dealing with gender when he writes that, “A feminist reading might well suggest that Vicky is faced by the dilemma faced by so many women that of constriction and limitation in a male-dominated world: neither man in her life will allow her to fulfill both her personal and professional ambitions; it is a world in which she emphatically cannot have both.” Tellingly, the same problem of “having both” does not trouble Kelly’s painter character in An American in Paris or indeed, Vicky’s composer-beau, Julian Craster, in The Red Shoes itself. Vicky’s dilemma: that of being torn between loyalty to her husband or to the patriarchal impresario Lermontov, belonging to one man or the other, but seemingly never to herself, is a powerful theme that hasn’t stopped echoing yet. Whether the film condemns Vicky’s dilemma or merely illustrates it is up for debate, as is the nature of Vicky’s death. Do the shoes compel her, or does she jump? The film’s ambiguity is one of its strengths, keeping us wondering about it, arguing over it, dreaming on it. Depending on one’s read of the film, Vicky’s death might be liberating or it might be grotesque. Perhaps it’s both.
The Red Shoes endures as a film of both beauty and horror, a moving examination of, as Powell insisted, Art with a capital “A.” Simultaneously gorgeous and pulsing with almost hysterical anxieties, it’s a film I will never forget and never cease to revisit. I began this essay with a question, famously answered by another question, and I end it without any real answers. But I know that the questions of The Red Shoes are worth asking again and again.