Turning 75 this year, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is a tale of love and creative obsession – and the best example of their genius.
This year marked the anniversary of a cinematic milestone: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ballet film The Red Shoes. The idea had floated around since the 1930s, when Alexander Korda sought to make the picture as a vehicle for his future wife, Merle Oberon. Eventually, it was picked up by the pair, who used Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale for their story of a ballerina torn between love and creative obsession. Though it was barely promoted by distributor The Rank Organisation, it slowly became a massive success in the UK and US. Martin Scorsese saw the film when he was eight and has championed it ever since. And 75 years later, The Red Shoes remains the best example of Powell and Pressburger’s genius.
It starts with a feverish crowd rushing to the balcony for the latest performance from the Ballet Lermontov. One of the attendees, music student Julian Craster (Marius Goring), realises his professor has copied some of his work and writes a letter to company impresario and artistic force Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). At the same time, Lermontov meets Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a young dancer from an aristocratic background. Seeing her potential during a performance of Swan Lake, he creates a new production for her – and asks Julian to compose it. The premiere performance in Monte Carlo is a rousing success, and Vicky soon becomes a big star. But then she and Julian begin to fall in love.
Roger Ebert famously said in his review of The Red Shoes: “You don’t watch it, you bathe in it.” The film is a visual and aural treat, from the score by regular Archers collaborator Brian Easdale to the striking production direction by Hein Heckroth (both of whom won Oscars). Heckroth trained as a painter and had never designed a film before. However, his theatrical background worked well with the bright Technicolor to produce a radically artificial look. Elsewhere, Jack Cardiff’s camerawork travels with the performers rather than just spectating them like in conventionally shot stage recordings. The Swan Lake scene features whip pans from Vicky’s point of view and in time with her rapid spins.
One of the best parts of The Red Shoes is its sense of naturalism. Powell and Pressburger fully immerse us in the creation of this ballet – the packed rehearsals and the goings-on behind the scenes. That extends to a cast made up mostly of dancers. French ballerina Ludmilla Tchérina as Boronskaya, Robert Helpmann as Lermontov’s male lead Boleslawsky (he was also the choreographer), Léonid Massine as tough coach Grischa. And in her first movie role, Moira Shearer perfectly encapsulates Vicky’s elegance and her later psychological turmoil.
Meanwhile, Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov was based on famed impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. The character is sophisticated and can be charming when he wants to be. He is also cold-hearted, exacting and jealous. He demands loyalty from his troupe and casts aside Boronskaya after she gets engaged. Yet all those positive and negative traits stem from the fact he is a deep perfectionist of this craft. “For me [ballet] is a religion,” he says early on, and we sense it. To him, art is more important than anything else and he is ruthless in achieving it.
The centrepiece of the film is the 17-minute ‘Ballet of the Red Shoes’, which was so influential that it inspired Gene Kelly for An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain (both of which have fantasy ballet sequences). Throughout his career, Powell sought to create a ‘composed film’, a synergy of music and image. This sequence achieves that, with Easdale’s varied composition accompanied by detailed matte paintings and double exposures. As a result, we are transported into the world of the ballet, a magical dreamscape of vivid colours and figures made of newspaper. At one point, the personal leaks over for Vicky. In a flash, she sees the shadowy figure of the shoemaker turn into both Lermontov and Julian.
It perfectly represents how Vicky is torn between two incompatible desires. “You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies on the comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never!” Lermontov tells her. At first, it seems Vicky chooses love over ambition. When Lermontov fires Julian after discovering the affair, she leaves to marry him. But the lure of dancing is too strong, leading to a tragic ending that stresses the price of art. Yet Powell and Pressburger always excelled at blurring reality and fantasy, and the ending also implies the control the red shoes might have had over Vicky.
That leads us back to the Hans Christian Andersen story that heavily inspired the pair. In the story, a girl cannot stop dancing after wearing red shoes to a ball. In the end, she asks an executioner to cut off her feet, and the shoes dance away. Like in Andersen’s fairytale, Vicky feels she must dance at the expense of everything else, a compulsion which ultimately leads to tragedy. “Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on,” says Lermontov. And Powell and Pressburger’s transfixing, sublime film will dance on for generations to come.
The Red Shoes is being shown in cinemas across the UK and on the BFI Player till 31 December, 2023 as part of the BFI’s “Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger” retrospective. The film is also available to watch globally on digital and on demand.