“‘The Ballet of The Red Shoes’ is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never 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 go on.”
—Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes
How can one explain the wonderful and terrifying magic of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 adaptation of The Red Shoes? A film about creative obsession, it has itself become the object of such obsession. Amongst cinephiles and filmmakers it commands a faction of true believers that rivals that of Citizen Kane, Vertigo or 8 ½. More than a textbook classic, The Red Shoes has been a fetish object, inspiring a feverishly ritualistic devotion that borders on the occult. Strange fate for a “commonplace backstage melodrama,” as Variety pegged it upon release, calling the story “trite” while acknowledging its technical achievements. “Pure women’s magazine” is how the film’s star, Moira Shearer, later shrugged it off. But the red shoes go on, now pirouetting their way through Film Forum in a gorgeous 35mm restoration, the final product of a 2½-year labor of love by the non-profit Film Foundation. What is it about Powell and Pressburger’s dance-film fairy tale that solicits such devotion to this day? Wherein lies the esoteric power of The Red Shoes?
Is it the impossible love triangle between a dancer (Shearer), her devoted composer (Marius Goring) and her demanding impresario (Anton Walbrook), whose fiery melodrama soon engulfs their Diaghilev-esque ballet company? Or is it the meticulously choreographed pas de trois of the three-strip Technicolor cinematography, arguably the most virtuousic and visionary example of that historically moribund process?
“One might call it the poetry of motion perhaps,” offers Lady Neston (Irene Browne) when asked by Lermontov to define the ballet. Might one also describe the spellbinding power of The Red Shoes, one of Powell and Pressburger’s most fluidly dynamic film, in similar terms?
“Yes, one might,” Lermontov spits out, dismissing such an answer as superficial and philistine. “But for me,” he continues, “it is so much more.”
Perhaps it is the realistic authenticity of the performances, the mix of professional dancers in their film debut (Shearer, Ballet Russes choreographer Leonide Massine) and professional actors in carefully studied a clef characterizations (Walbrook’s composite of Dzighalev and the film producer Alexander Korda in the role of Lermontov). Or perhaps—quite the opposite!—it’s the visionary flights of fancy that transport the set pieces of this backstage musical into the realms of neo-romantic mythology?
Or is it something still more?
Perhaps it’s the film’s gesamtkunstwerk genius, its formal integration of multiple artistic media into a totalizing vision. The theatricality of the stage invades everyday life in the outsized personalities and self-conscious performativity of a troupe of performers who are always on. Cinema, in turn, invades the space of the theatre. In the Ballet of the Red Shoes—a 17 minute tour de force set like a crown jewel in the middle of the film—the camera unmoors itself from the audience’s view of the stage and boldly crosses the proscenium, dissolving theatrical time and space into the impossible topography enabled by montage and superimposition. Music invokes images (“This is ballroom music,” Goring’s character asserts, “and anyone who knows anything about music will see a ballroom”) and images invoke music (from the hushed pianissimo of off-whites and pale pastels to the furious fortissimo of ultra-saturated primary and secondary hues, The Red Shoes‘ color design mirrors the dynamic range and internal complexity of a full house orchestra). Is it the sensual power of synesthesia that so vividly evokes the agony and the ecstasy of the story? Or is it something still more?
“For me,” Walbrook declaims, with a conviction that defies Camp, “it is a religion.”
Closer still to the quickening pulse of The Red Shoes. To watch Moira Shearer (porcelain-skinned and flame-haired like a pre-Raphaelite goddess) give herself fully to the terrifying and transporting power of the red shoes ballet is to be reminded of the words of Walter Pater, that high priest of British aestheticism: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The magical device of the red shoes is but a symbol for the unstoppable drive of the aesthete: the rapture of creative expression and the tragedy of creative compulsion. Everything else is just Intermission.
And yet there’s still something more.
More for then Art for Art’s sake, more than Life for Art’s sake, The Red Shoes is the story of Death for Art’s sake. And it is ultimately a deeply personal confession. Through the form of a highly conventionalized allegory, two of cinema’s greatest filmmakers acknowledge the obsessive, antisocial, and self-destructive pathologies that underlie creative genius. But The Red Shoes is not a cautionary tale. On the contrary: “For 10 years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy,” Powell wrote in reference to World War II. “But now the war was over, and The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”
Go out and die for art. It is a supremely perverse celebration of the artistic drive as a kind of pathology for which there is no cure. The Red Shoes gives you permission to sacrifice everything (everything: free time, friendships, lovers, life itself) in order to create. Indulging this pathology may very well not lead you to happiness, as the tragic ending of The Red Shoes makes clear. But denying this pathology cannot lead to happiness. The idea is horrifying, depressing—and strangely comforting. Without your art you have nothing, but that means you also have nothing to lose.
And as this Powell and Pressburger’s breathtaking film reminds us in the dying flicker of every beautiful frame: you have so, so much to gain.
The Red Shoes is playing at Film Forum through Thursday, November 19th.
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Paul Brunick is a young film fanatic residing in New York and a regular contributor to Film Comment magazine. He is currently completing an M.A. in Cinema Studies at NYU.