I’ve stayed with the Powell/Pressburger box set for a second week for two reasons. The first is that this is a working Sunday, which means I wanted something familiar, a known quantity. The other is that this is the biggest box set in my collection, with as many films as four of the other six put together, and if I just watch one every few weeks, there’s going to be a long series of these films at the end.
The Red Shoes is a classic British film, released in 1948, and starring Archers regular Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and ballerina Moira Shearer in her first acting role. It’s a film about ballet, for which The Archers effectively created their own ballet company, choosing rightly to cast dancers who could act rather than actors, and incorporating an uninterrupted fifteen minute ballet, composedand choreographed for the film, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’ – as is the film, naturally.
I’m in no position to comment on the ballet elements of this film because I’m a complete ignoramus in this sphere, a true don’t-know-art-but-I-know-what-I-like. Better people than I have praised the film in this regard (and dismissed it contemptuously) and I’m happy to go with their interpretation.
The three principals are Boris Lermontov, Director of a ballet company (Walbrook), Julian Craster, a gifted musician and composer (Goring)and Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page, a dancer with the capability to be a great dancer (Shearer). The latter is the girl in the Red Shoes, both in terms of the ballet and in her own life, and though Shearer is by a distance the weakest actor in the production, the story centres upon her.
Lermontov – based primarily upon Sergei Diagheliv with elements of J Arthur Rank and Michael Powell himself – is the consummate artiste. He lives for dance, eschews what we would call human emotions, and is contemptuous of those who dilute their potential or their achievement by falling in love: dictatorially, he will sever relations with them instantly.
Lermontov is the incarnation of Cyril Connolly’s ‘Pram in the Hallway’ belief. Dance is his life, and no other considerations must be allowed to divert even the tiniest fraction of commitment to that. And he will not tolerate those who do that.
Which is going to be the cae with both Julian and, especially, Vicky.
It’s a long time in coming. The film takes a realistic amount of time to building this pair up as the different yet parallel successes they are going to be. Julian, a more forceful personality, more convinced of his own genius, is the dominant element in this act of the film: he starts as a music student whose Professor has stolen his work, is offered a lowly musiiical role with Ballet Lermontov and progressing to rescoring ballets and then the composition of the music of the Red Shoes Ballet.
Because of Shearer’s limitations, which the film works around brilliantly (though not unnoticeably), limiting the number of lines she has, and using her as a still point, a point of silence around which things happen, Vicky’s progress is quieter but more determined. She believes in herself and her abilities but, paradoxically, lack’s Julian’s overt confidence in that talent. Only in the ballet senes does Shearer truly come alive, and she is dynamite: passionate, emotive, tireless, dominating the screen.
The inevitable happens: Vicky and Julian fall in love. It comes out of the background, with no open signs to the audience, who are put in the same position as Lermontov, to whom it is no mere surprise but a shock, a shock that threatens to overturn his plans. Julian is fired. Unable to persuade Lermontov to rescind this decree, Vicky quits.
Some critics see this development as springing from Lermontov developing personal feelings for Vicky, and given the sequence of events, it’s a distinct point. I can only say that I have never felt it in the film. Part of it may be from the fact that Walbrook was gay (but so too was Goring), but the careful and complete portrait of him created by the film at every point means that I can only see his interest in Vicky as being her potential ability, and the possibilities of developing that further than any other dancer he has worked with: Svengali instead of lover or husband. Goring is far more convincing as someone wanting to spend his life with Vicky. There is a beautifully touching scene as the pair cuddle in the early hours, in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, moonlight on the Mediterranean Sea, and Julian drifts into the future, imagining an eager and beautiful young women asking him what was his happiest moment…
But this is not just a film about ballet, but rather a film about obsession, and ability, and the drawing of lines, and besides the tragedy of the Red Shoes must be played out. Vicky accompanies her Aunt on a holiday in the Med whilst Julian supervises the First Night of his Opera. Lermontov finds her, draws her back to dance ‘her’ ballet, TheRed Shoes. Julian arrives from London to take her home. He and Lermontov blaze at each other over Vicky’s future. As I said before, Lermontov is concerned with Vicky the Dancer, Julian with Vicky the Woman. His is the deeper, more holistic love, but Vicky is the Dancer and the Red Shoes cannot beremoved whilst there is dancing to be done. Julian accepts his defeat gracefully, unable to move outside his love for Vicky, whilst Lermontov is only triumphant.
Vicky is wearing the Red Shoes. It’s an intentional inconsistency, a moment of artistic unity, not chronological accuracy. Crippled, broken by her loss, by the destruction caused by having to choose at all, Vicky is drawn away by the Shoes: down the stairs, out of the theatre, across the road, and with Julian running with hopeless desperation to stop her, she makes the only choice that is entirely hers to make, and throws herself under the train.
Oh yes, it’s melodrama, but ballet is melodrama, the elevation of feelings and urgencies into emotion that cannot be contained, and so Vicky’s sacrifice is entireky in keeping with the film. The Red Shoes Ballet is danced with an empty spotlight highlighting all the moves Vicky can no longer make. Her last, dying request to Julian is that he undo the Red Shoes, returning herself to him for a final moment.
Though I barely understand half the film, I am absorbed by it. Walbrook and Goring are sensational and so, in her very undetstated way, is Shearer. The film makes not merely a virtue but a triumph of her limitations, relying on her still presence in scenes to create a sense of effect on the other players. She is entirely at home in the dance and in everything that relates to the dance, and of course her fellow dancers, and it is of immense help that, even when stood still, Shearer has the capacity to dominate a scenewith her flaming red hair, her slim physique, her long, pale legs. Though perhaps a little too round in the face for classical beauty, this adds an individuality to her appearance that completes a stunning picture.
In the end, I return to that theme of obsession, of ability, and how or even if this can be reconciled with the massive distraction that is love for someone else. The Archers step back, offer no definitive solution. In their differing ways, Boris Lermotov, Julian Craster and Victoria Page are all destroyed by their inability to find that solution. Modern opinion will find it misogynistic that it is the woman who is singled out for physical destruction, but would you want to be either of Lermontov or Julian afterwards?