Be careful what you wish for. This was something Miss Victoria Page didn’t think of when she joyfully agreed to be become prima ballerina of Boris Lermontov’s Ballet Company. Vicky Page’s story is one of not only dance but art and death, and it’s superbly rendered, choreographed, and executed in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece, The Red Shoes (1948).
It’s a story within a story. On one hand, we follow the lives of Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), an aspiring ballet dancer; Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) a tyrannical impresario of his ballet company, and Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a talented and young composer. Their lives are intertwined through a secondary story—that of The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen.
It’s tragic and macabre. When Lermontov demands Julian write the music for the ballet inspired by Andersen’s fairy tale, he poetically and bluntly describes it: “It is a story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. They dance her out into the street. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”
Julian hopes for a happy end. “What happens next,” he asks Lermontov.
“Oh, in the end, she dies,” says Lermontov indifferently.
As the film progresses, so does Vicky’s greatness and fame. As time rushes by, so does Vicky’s love for Julian and Julian’s for her. As seasons and cities change, Lermontov remains the same domineering tyrant—or as Lady Neston (Irene Brown) calls him at the beginning of the film, “Attractive brute.” He wants to possess Vicky in every possible way. It’s not enough that he controls what she eats, when she sleeps, and how and when she dances. She must never be allowed to fall in love with someone else.
Vicky chooses love and Julian but the red shoes keep calling. Much like the shoe storekeeper in the ballet story, who lures the girl to put the shoes on, Lermontov’s a sly fox, who’s only interested in one thing: the relationship between a master and a slave.
It’d be unfair and untrue to reduce The Red Shoes to a film about a sadomasochistic relationship between Vicky and Lermontov. While Vicky genuinely loves ballet, it’s unclear what Lermontov loves: ballet, art itself, or his compulsion to control. He admits that the best feeling in the world is to create something out of nothing, or at least something out of not much. A human being, of course, can’t create ex nihilo, only God can. But this doesn’t stop Lermontov from fancying himself a god. He enjoys the praise, and weakness of any kind is unacceptable. This includes his own.
Lermontov is a beast to Vicky’s beauty. She’s entering into “the mouth of madness,” and her naivete is preventing her from seeing that this fairy tale will end badly. Then again, aren’t all fairy tales by nature macabre? Isn’t the very existence of a fairy tale an indication of our perpetual ignorance of evil and what lurks beneath the mossy ground of a deep forest?
Released in 1948, The Red Shoes is a radical film. The first aspect is the choice of technicolor. Both the exterior and the interior world of the characters is bathed in luminous and deep reds. This is especially seen during the actual ballet performance of “The Red Shoes.” It’s a 20-minute sequence, a continuous movement of Moira Shearer as she dances the role of the girl who dances herself into death. We move from exultation to despair until we succumb to compressed and madness-induced mortality.
Another radical aspect of Powell and Pressburger’s film is the relationships that unfold on the screen. The sexuality and asexuality in the film is both subtle and matter-of-fact. Gentle as well as destructive eros drives Powell and Pressburger’s vision.
Vicky’s caught between two men—Lermontov and Julian. Both represent something important in her life: dance and love. Both want to possess her but not in the same way. By far, the more powerful figure is Lermontov, and Walbrook brings out the intensity that’s erotic and repulsive. He doesn’t express a sexual urge toward Vicky. In fact, there’s an element of homoeroticism in the way he relates to Vicky, yet his aggression borne out of perverted love, is almost acceptable—certainly to Vicky.
Lermontov’s gazes, silences, and screams encompass thousands of feelings and roles. He’s at once a caring father and an angry lover. His undulating possessiveness is erotic but not in an expected way: figuratively speaking, Lermontov woos Vicky, retreats, woos again, makes love to her, fucks her, and finally, rapes her. He’s also repulsed by her female body. He has no interest in sex because to him, that’s an animalistic act, yet his release comes from power and tyrannical asceticism. He’d rather touch a sculpture of a foot wrapped in a ballet shoe than allow himself near the female body. He’s a man of many faces, or rather, many masks.
Vicky accepts this, and much like the red shoes in Andersen’s story, Lermontov is the force that’s also the siren call. For most of the film, she’s under his spell. He makes her think that she has the power but Lermontov the master is shrewd. He never lets himself to be fully destroyed.
The Red Shoes is an atmospheric horror story, a fairy tale with dire consequence, all stemming from one small exchange between Boris Lermontov and Victoria Page at the beginning of the film. Looking down on her at a party he wishes he wasn’t at, he asks her coyly, “Why do you want to dance?” to which Vicky replies, “Why do you want to live?” Both questions may not give us a full answer to who Lermontov and Vicky truly are but they do ask us to examine the greatness of art and love.