Top Ten Criterions #9: The Red Shoes

THE RED SHOES (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I first discovered The Red Shoes when I was watching all the films that had been cited as influences on Black Swan, a very satisfying movie marathon that also included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Red Shoes  was made more than sixty years ago, but it remains one of the most visually striking, overwhelmingly beautiful films about art ever created.

Moira Shearer as Victoria Page.

The plot itself is simple, the plot of a fairytale – a parable, even. Vicky is a beautiful, talented young ballerina who stars in a ballet production of the titular story by Hans Christian Anderson. She finds herself faced with a choice – between her dancing career and the charismatic, ambitious director who discovered her talent, or the young composer she has grown to love.

“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Her own life, predictably enough, reflects the story she dances on the stage: Her red ballet shoes betray her only when love threatens to tear them apart. Just like in the fairy tale, once she puts them on (in other words, dedicates her life to art), she cannot take them off. The Red Shoes features a self-reflective narrative and is about the dangerous, obsessive totality of artistic dedication. It shows us how difficult it is for one girl to have two lives, however beautiful both love and art can be.

“…not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

But what makes The Red Shoes such an exultant experience is that it is a celebration of ballet and of cinema far more than it is a cautionary tale. The famous, prolonged dance scene is gorgeous and striking, and it had such an impact on me because it makes such incredibly effective use of it its medium. The sequence features cinematography and editing that offers a far more complete sense of what ballet is than it is possible to receive while sitting in front of a stage. The camera alternates between three perspectives. First, that of the audience – this is view of ballet that we are all familiar with. Then, Vicky’s own perspective – a rhythmically spinning, blurred view of not much at all. But the third view is, to me, the most important. It is too close, and the camera’s movement is too much of a dance itself to be something you could see while watching a ballet in person. And the images are too hallucinatory, too magical – they present our eyes and our hearts with what ballet suggests. It’s way of looking at ballet that is only possible in the movies.

Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

During the ballet of the Red Shoes itself, we are transported into a world which exists only in our heads, the world which the music and the movement and the costumes are supposed to conjure for us, purely and directly visualized in film. It’s seamlessly fantastical, a beautiful whirling vision of color and imagination and tragedy. At the very end of the ballet, the vision fades and we are shown again what the captivated audience in the auditorium sees, and then an angle from backstage. And after the applause and bow, the stark cement world of the dancers’ practice room seems cold and bare compared to the lovely visions that we have been privy to.

This movie does what all cinema should aspire to but only the best films achieve: it gave us a vision of life and art that literally only the camera can provide.