When first conceiving my 2016 List of Shame I scanned my shelves for especially shameful movies I’d owned but never watched. The Red Shoes stood out. It’s red and white text, bold and conspicuous against the sea of low-numbered Criterion black. Somehow the act of purchasing and procuring magnifies the Shame. Here, I intend to watch you, I do, but for now you’re going to sit on this shelf over here and look pretty. It’s the “We’ll do lunch” of movie watching. During the last Barnes and Noble Criterion Collection sale, I broke down and purchased The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger’s early Technicolor masterpiece. I’d read all this hyperbolic praise for The Red Shoes, including some from the likes of Martin Scorcese who ranks it among the finest films ever made. And there it was all beautiful and Blu-ray-y.
Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a young ballet dancer from a well-to-do family, snags an audition (courtesy of her Aunt’s connections) with Boris Lermontov, the hardass, take-no-prisoners impresario of the Ballet Lermontov. This is the kind of guy that believes art begets suffering and suffering begets art and anything else is just tiddlywinks and glue sniffing. When Lermontov loses his prima ballerina to the nefarious institution of marriage, he creates a starring role for Vicky Page in his new ballet, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes.” It’s your typical happy-fun-times HCA bauble. A peasant girl becomes obsessed with a pair of red shoes. The shoes begin to move and dance on their own. She can’t stop dancing. She can’t take them off. She asks and executioner to chop off her feet. The shoes continue to dance. There’s apparently a scene where the girl’s amputated feet lead her down the aisle at church so she can show everyone the red shoes again. She begs God for mercy and then her soul flies off to Heaven. The End. What the actual fuck, Hans Christan Anderson?
Based on the fairy tale, you can guess where this movie’s going as life begins to imitate art. Lermontov’s The Red Shoes becomes a huge success, catapulting Vicky Page into ballet superstardom. All goes well until Page falls for her Red Shoes composer and their coupling throws Lermontov into hysteria. He boots the composer. She leaves the company, knowing she’ll never have the same success elsewhere. Lermontov also retains the rights to The Red Shoes.
So that’s the story. But that’s not why it’s beloved. Powell & Pressburger’s use of color in The Red Shoes stands as a monument of visual filmmaking. Red jumps off the screen as if in a third-dimension. I also can’t recall a film framed in the Academy ratio that felt this big. And it’s not about scope and scale. It’s about the use of light and shadow, a conservation of space and timely deployment of color.
The film leaves images imprinted on the brain. Like that one above. And this one.
Meanwhile contemporary critics of the film often panned The Red Shoes as derivative. Hrm. It seems to me there’s a disconnect here in 1948. A rarely used color development process. Some of the most arresting visuals in cinema this side of D.W. Griffith. So what’s the problem, jerky critics? Ahhh. Yes. There’s that story I mentioned earlier.
In many ways, The Red Shoes is a quintessential entry in the “backstage melodrama” genre. Aggressive, petulant showrunner. Delicate but driven ballet dancer. Forces of nature collide. Tears happen. Hearts are broken. It’s done well. It’s a competent, time-tested love quadrangle. If we keep Hans’ original story for The Red Shoes in mind, we know the narrative’s ultimate destination. I won’t spoil it in case you’re slow on the uptake. The question that you then must ask is whether or not Powell and Pressburger earn that ending. That’s a touchy question to ask in the face of millions of adoring fans claiming The Red Shoes to be an inarguable classic, a pinnacle of early British cinema.
Controversial opinion alert:
My immediate gut says that The Red Shoes doesn’t earn its ending. The film packs an inordinate amount of character shift into the final five minutes, sprinting to the finish, perhaps as the amputated shoes raced down the church aisle for their final bow. If we know the story of the fairy tale, we have already injected that into our interpretation of the film. I remember wondering with ten minutes to go if I’d read the film entirely wrong and we weren’t going for the movie imitating the ballet within the movie conclusion that seemed so very assured after Lermontov first describes ballet he wants to produce. The final shot fails to resonate for that reason. It all happens in a relative blink without any time to dwell on the finer points of character.
While I adored much about The Red Shoes, I can’t give this my highest recommendation. The rushed ending and perhaps indeed derivative narrative detracted from my overall reception. I’d pre-written the OMFG 5-star review in my head during the journey but by film’s end I realized I needed to rewrite the script. I’ve reduced my overall impression to OMFG that cinematography! that Moira Shearer! and ehhhhh… what just happened?
Shame #1 is in the bag for 2016. But I’ve got a long year ahead. Join me, won’t you?