By Mel Cartagena
The Red Shoes – 1948 – dir Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
In The Red Shoes (1948), director Michael Powell explores the apparent lack of balance in the life of a young dancer’s life. Drawing parallels between the story by Hans Christian Andersen of a girl consumed by the need to dance, Powell has Vicky (Moira Shearer) dance her way through a lush, intricate, dream-like twenty-minute ballet sequence where the dimensions of the stage stretch into infinity and the ocean itself, substituting for her audience, roars approval for her grace and beauty. It takes some effort to come back from this exhilarating dance sequence to the mundane world of show schedules and dance rehearsals, where most of the action in The Red Shoes takes place. And this is Michael Powell’s great achievement, the way in which he, working closely with choreographer Robert Helpmann, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, art director Arthur Lawson and production designer Hein Heckroth, infuses a film which deals with the realities of a ballet company with a strong, visibly palpable dose of fantasy.
The Red Shoes deals with subjective fantasy colliding with simple human needs, much in the same way that the righteous good intentions of the convent of nuns come up against sensual earthly wants in Black Narcissus (1947.) For Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), Vicky is a fantasy dancer come to life, an exceptionally talented dancer to whom dancing means more than life itself, to whom dancing is life. To Vicky, earning the status of prima ballerina for Lermontov’s new ballet is a fantasy come true, a dream mirrored by thousands of little girls around the world who dream of becoming prima ballerinas some day. To Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the young composer whose talent is spotted by Lermontov and quickly put to use in creating the Ballet of the Red Shoes, it’s a fantasy whose solidity unfolds in the symphony pages he composes. These dreams clash against inescapable matters of life, love and death, making The Red Shoes at once a dream with an expressionist color palette and a cautionary tale of consuming obsession; at once a fairy tale and a psychological drama about a woman being pulled in two directions by two men. On one side is her love for Julian, who owns her heart. On the other is her dedication to Boris, who is aware of the emotional hold Julian has on her, and is jealous. With her head clouded by visions of love, Vicky can’t see that her apparent selfishness—to Julian’s eyes—in her dedication to ballet, and Boris’s single-minded drive are what she truly wants. In his cold and bloodless dedication to ballet, Boris resembles Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe) in La Vie En Rose (2007.) When Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) makes an awkward seduction attempt on Raymond, he coldly shoves her back to her place in front of the dais with the music sheets, and continues with her singing lessons without missing a beat. Like Raymond, Boris cares nothing about Vicky herself, only about her skill. She is a vessel holding great talent, and he wants to steer this talent into a performance greater than even her, a ballet for the ages, conceived under the tutelage and financing of the Lermontov Ballet company label. Boris is no less selfish than Julian when he demands Vicky not perform the Red Shoes Ballet for Boris out of respect for their marriage, but instead go back to London with him while he conducts his new composition. Selfishness, disguised as love or ambition, fails to recognize itself.
The irony of the dedication Boris imposes on Vicky and Julian is that in forcing them to spend so much time together, among the discussions and arguments, they fall in love, a state of affairs that is anathema to Boris. When they break the news to Boris, his reaction is even more hostile then when Irene, his former prima ballerina, delivered the same news to him, and he gives them an ultimatum: they will have to choose between their careers or love. The Gods punish those who dare to live in two worlds.
Boris owns the rights to the Red Shoes Ballet. Vicky can’t perform it with any other company, and what little work she finds leaves her unfulfilled, she admits to Boris when they meet some time later. Boris embodies at once everything that makes Vicky happy and miserable. She is in ecstasy when she loses herself in dance, and demoralized when confronted with the ugly reality of what it means to be a ballet dancer, the sacrifice and dedication it takes to become a world-class dancer, which so appropriately matches the moral in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Boris is such a repellent creature, so petty and spiteful, so manipulative in his strategy to lure Vicky back into the fold of his company, that Vicky can’t see a way to reconcile the two worlds she attempts to navigate. There’s no way for her to regain her love of dance without feeling she’s betraying Julian. Adrift in a moral and emotional limbo, the red shoes make the choice for her, emphasizing that life goes on after the red shoes are hung up at the end of the dance.