Criterion Review: The Red Shoes (1948)

“Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.”

-Boris Lermontov

I said in a previous post, that when it comes to film, the term classic gets thrown around far too often. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 ballet epic The Red Shoes, however, actually defines a classic .

While the film is completely of its time, it plays today just as effectively as it did back when it was released. Its themes are universal yet aren’t compromised by over-simplification . Its special effects, acting and story have aged very gracefully since the film’s release over sixty years ago– something that cannot be said about most supposed classics.

On the surface, the film tells a story of ambition and love set against a backdrop of a grand ballet. However, these elements are not the main focus or emotional centre of the film. The real focal point is jealousy, specifically that of Boris Lermontov, the Ballet’s owner. As the love of young Victoria Page, played by dancer Moira Shearer, and composer Julian Craster blossoms–for the most part off screen– the film focuses on the torment of Lermontov as he endures the realization that his muse has fallen for another man.

The centre-piece of the film is the titular ballet, The Red Shoes. For someone who has never seen or enjoyed a ballet, this could be the part of the film that might bore or irritate, instead this sequence is the most powerful. The ballet is epic in scale, and instead of simply filming from the audience’s perspective, we are thrust right into it, and as it begins to shift into what the characters would be seeing, it becomes even more interesting, and almost hallucinatory.

This sequence is daring and innovative. It could have been disastrous and ruined the film’s pacing, instead it brings the film to another level. It lets us realizes why these characters are so obsessed with what they do, and even more important, it makes us obsessed with ballet, even if only for the duration of the film.

The ballet and film are based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a pair of red shoes which once worn will not let the wearer stop dancing. Lermontov is Page’s red shoes, through his grand promises and manipulation he forces Page to continue to dance. He would like people to believe this is to stop Page from giving up her dreams. However, it is clear he is only doing this to save his love. He is too head-strong to admit it, but his love for her in the end destroys her as the pull between dancing and life is too strong.

While the film is one about obsession and jealousy, it is not, however, depressing or difficult to watch. As the film becomes more dramatic, you begin to realize you are watching, in a sense, a ballet.

I do not think I could have enjoyed this film nearly as much if it were not for the Criterion DVD edition I viewed. This print has been a seven year painstaking passion project for Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, and it shows. The film looks beautiful, in ways that we are not use to. The fact it was shot in technicolor means that the colours pop. At a time when films mostly show us muted colour tones, a film like this is mesmerizing as we are not used to such vibrant colours.

The restored edition is one to truly cherish. Scorsese and others who work tirelessly to preserve and restore such classics deserve our admiration and our thanks.

At the beginning of the film Lermontov asks Page: “Why do you want to dance?”, she replies with a question, “Why do you want to live?” he responds “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must” and she states “that’s my answer too”. While at the beginning of the film we may not understand why someone would be so in love with ballet, by the end we understand exactly what she means and feel that way about this film.

Why do we watch film? Because we must; because great films teach us about the human condition and and ultimately about ourselves. This film is a true example of this.

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One Response to Criterion Review: The Red Shoes (1948)

  1. Nice summary, you give a compelling recommendation to watch this film!

    I watched and reviewed this film before the new restored version was released and I still haven’t seen it yet (though I hope to get the Bluray for my birthday next week – I asked my mom to get it for me!) But even the old DVD really impressed me, and it’s been fun for me to see the widespread acclaim that the recent re-release of The Red Shoes has earned for the film. I shared some of your apparent hesitation about watching a “ballet movie,” as you’ll see in my review if you haven’t read it yet, but I agree, this film goes way beyond the niche interest of classical dance. It’s a beautiful work of art, visually, but also a very incisive statement about the creative process and the crucial decision that many gifted people have to make between a pure pursuit of their artistic talents and the compromises that are necessary to make ordinary human relationships work. I think that was more at the heart of Lermontov’s jealousy than a romantic attraction to Vicky. In fact, I think the argument could be made that Lermontov was either gay or asexual, but in any case, his passion for dance transcended any attachment or yearning for a particular personal relationship. He thought that Vicky was a kindred spirit in that sense but when she “gave in” to the allure of conventional romance and taking a break from dancing for the sake of her partner, Lermontov couldn’t handle it. So he put the pressure on in the hopes that she would make the same commitment he did. It’s a lot like someone who’s in the on-fire phase of religious conversion – even if you’re their good friend, if you don’t switch over, they will ditch you in favor of the next potential convert!

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