Early technicolour films are fascinating for their grandeur; the palettes often striking and vivid, creating a fantastical artifice. As one of the best-remembered technicolour films, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) is undoubtedly a spectacle, proudly highlighting itself as an opportunity to see ballet on display in luxurious technicolour. Using that spectacle to tell a story of obsession and artistry, the medium of ballet and the lurid colours examine the characters’ connection to their art and the inevitable conflict that arises as their passions interfere.
Loosely the story follows the tragedy of Vicky Paige (Moira Shearer), a young noblewoman with aspirations to dance with the prestigious Ballet Lermontov, run by the snobbish perfectionist Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Initially rejected as a spoilt prissy noble, she is given an opportunity to work with her idol once he feels her passion for the ballet is akin to his own. When defining ballet, Lermontov states “for me it is a religion”, highlighting his devotion as something sacred; Paige, in turn, challenges this passion when he asks “why do you want to dance?” to which she responds “why do you want to live?”, leaving the elite perfectionist stunned for the first time in the film. In this initial stage, Lermontov appears stubbornly tough, but fair in his own way. He gives Paige an opportunity, as well as hiring the young student composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) after he discovers that the composer of his previous ballet had plagiarised his student Craster’s work. Lermontov first seems a stern and serious devotee, yet allows young talent to thrive under his wing; however, as the film goes on, we see the negatives of his character. His perfectionism leads to intolerance, causing him to fire his leading dancer after discovering she is planning to get married. So, when romance blossoms between Paige and Craster, we know there will only be strife as it goes against Lermontov’s tyrannical demands. Furthermore, after giving Paige and Craster leading roles in performing and composing his new ballet, he enforces strict deadlines and harshly overworks his talent, especially Paige who is tasked with dancing the entire ballet.
This grand ballet performance is the centrepiece of the movie, devoting a solid 15 minutes to the sequence and proudly advertising its performance in the opening credits. The dance itself adapts the Hans Christian Andersen tale ‘The Red Shoes’, a story of a young woman who is tricked into wearing a pair of enchanted red shoes, which curse her to dance until she dies. The tale is an obvious parallel to the plot of the film, showing the strain on Paige’s psyche through metaphor, as she dances through the nightmare-scape of Lermontov’s sets. In turn, this sequence transgresses the nature of ballet, through the intrusion of filmic language throughout. The changing camera angles create a more intimate connection between the viewer than would be possible through a stage show. The red shoes themselves become a stronger image because of how much of the screen they dominate in close-ups, their seductive red hue contrasting against the drab dark backing. This is particularly prominent when they are put on; though the shot only lasts a second, they consume the screen as Paige leaps into them, the lacing tying itself around her leg like a pair of demonic tendrils. The dance sequence deliberately clashes with the otherwise realistic period piece mood, entering a surreal landscape wherein the stage seems to disappear, the sets changing seamlessly, stretching endlessly into a void of darkness. An image stuck in my mind is that of Paige dancing with a man dressed in derelict newspaper imprinted costume, only for the man to disappear in a jump cut to turn back into a newspaper puppet; cementing this scene as a magical space which defies the laws of the stage, drifting instead into the dreamscape of cinema.
It is unfortunate then that this sequence is undercut by the actual relationship between Paige and Craster, which feels underdeveloped, hardly sharing scenes before they off and elope from the company. Admittedly the surprise may be the point, highlighting Lermontov’s shock and hypocritical refusal to tolerate emotions such as love interfering with his art; yet I could not help but feel the lovers had little in common besides being young and pretty. The biggest link may just be that they are both artists, dedicated to their craft to a fault. Craster makes it clear from his introduction that he considers ballet a lesser art form, whereas Paige and Lermontov worship, inevitably causing tension. While Paige stops dancing in order to marry Craster, his career blooms, going on to work on a successful opera. While it is clear he does not object to her dancing, only interfering in her return to perform the Red Shoe because of the spiteful ultimatum the Lermontov gave the couple, he still acts as a roadblock to her desires for grandeur as a dancer, with his career being allowed to thrive while hers dies to play the supporting wife. In turn, Lermontov can represent the caprice that producers can have over their talent, demanding they ignore their humanity in order to work with him. It is also clear he is not beyond human emotions, being driven by jealousy following Paige’s rejection of him; in one scene smashing the glass of a mirror out of rage, leaving his hand bleeding and torn. This act of anger shows the destructive nature of his rage, harming himself but also foreshadowing the harm it will do to others when it drives Paige to commit suicide by leaping in front of a train.
The performance following her suicide is an absurd show. We see the ballet performed again but this time without its lead dancer, instead a spotlight follows where she would be, highlighting the hole her death left in the company. It is an eerie spectacle, as we witness Paige’s untimely death haunting the show in her absence. One gets the feeling that this is the death of the Ballet Lermontov as well; the impresario’s avarice and obsession having killed his star and left his company broken. In turn, Paige’s dying request for Craster to “take off the Red Shoes”, echoes the ending of the fairy tale, but also symbolizes her dying freedom from the role that caused such emotional strain. It is a tragic ending which offers no real solution nor life beyond its hyperreal shots, closing with cautionary death and sorrow as any good fairy tale should.