From 1909 to 1929, the Ballets Russes, headed by Sergei Diaghilev, effectively reinvented musical theater. Hiring not only gifted and promising young composers and performers but designers and choreographers to elevate ballet to a new artistic watermark, they took late 19th century innovations in tonality and rhythm and used them to break ballet of its rigid, uncomplicated form. Most notably, Diaghilev launched the career of Igor Stravinsky, whose compositions were so revolutionary they quite literally sparked riots. Today, of course, Stravinsky is enshrined as one of the great composers of the modern era, and the influence of the Ballets Russes on theater is still plainly seen in productions.
What Diaghilev and his company did for musical theater, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes did for film. A mixture of ecstasy, tragedy, realism, melodrama, hallucination and passion, it is one of those films that is not a film at all but an invitation into a self-contained world. Once inside, the characters' emotions become your own, their perceptions our reality. It is the finest filmic depiction of music I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I have never seen another film like it, though I can see immediately that many have tried to replicate even a small portion of its genius. I do not mean to slip into superlatives so quickly, but some masterpieces require time to grow on you and some grab you by the throat on the first try, and The Red Shoes firmly belongs in the latter category.
Diaghilev's life loosely informs the character of impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), director of the theater company that bears his name. He is a demanding, cold taskmaster with grueling standards and a dismissive attitude toward those who fail to meet them. After losing his prima ballerina to marriage and in need of a new composer, Lermontov hires two replacements: Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) and Julian Craster (Marius Goring).
From these three characters, two stories emerge, each far removed from the other. On the one hand, we have the story of the dancer and the composer, initially quarrelers but ultimately lovers. Julian's creativity and innovation give Vicky the advanced material to let her fully prove her astonishing talent, and Vicky becomes Julian's muse. The other story concerns the impresario's obsession with his dancer, and how he attempts to force himself between her and Craster. The first is quota quickie melodrama at its finest, filled with enough cheeky wit to let us know that Powell and Pressburger are in on it, but with enough sincerity to make it work as drama. The second is infinitely darker, one that introduces a fascinating psychological element to the film and provides its fundamental artistic message.
That message might strike some as "elitist." Lermontov meets Vicky at a party, where the hosts attempt to foist Vicky on an understandably suspicious impresario. After some funny exchanges and some faux pas, Lermontov gauges his potential new talent in a sort of pre-audition: he asks, "Why do you want to dance?" to which she immediately responds, "Why do you want to live?" "Well, I don't know exactly why, but ... I must." "That's my answer, too."
You see, the film is about art. Films about film/art tend to fall into one of two categories: the pain and joy of creation and its effect on the artist, and the paramount importance of art in the life of the person who appreciates it. The Red Shoes features elements of both, but it boldly combines the two. In this world, art is the fundamental proof of humanity, and of status. Those who can create are the true rulers of the world, and those who cannot are but serfs in control of the masters on the stage.
Ironically, Lermontov, the only character among the theater troupe who is not an artist, understands this more than either Julian or even Vicky. He angrily dismisses his first prima ballerina for falling in love, and when he learns of Julian and Vicky's relationship his wrath is terrifying as it pushes out of the edges of his cold and collected demeanor. On one level, this is Powell and Pressburger's nod to Diaghilev's dismissal of his lover, the famed dancer Nijinsky, out of jealousy when the latter eventually married. But Lermontov's jealousy is not a sexual lust: he simply resents anything that might distract his star dancer from her art. Walbrook's performance is watertight: it's impossible to read his face for either the moment of joy he feels with art or the rage he feels when his joy is threatened. When Craster informs the director that the two are in love, Walbrook's eye twitches ever so slightly. His cruelty is firm and passionate, but always restrained enough to make him truly menacing.
There is also the matter of the ballet. Lermontov tasks Craster with composing a new, more daring score for Hans Christian Andersen's story. Pressburger's script sets the film up not as a musical adaptation but an adaptation of an adaptation. As the film wears on, we see Andersen's tale come to mirror Pressburger's narrative and themes. In explaining the story to Julian, Lermontov draws out its poetry: a cobbler gives a woman a pair of red shoes, which force her to dance and dance and dance. She dances until her clothes are rags and she can barely stand. At last she makes her way to a funeral where a priest helps her. Craster mulls this over, then asks what happens to the girl. "Oh, in the end she dies," Lermontov flippantly replies. That says more about his mindset than his conversation with the choreographer Ljubov, in which he admits he does not understand human love and, when confronted with the truth that he cannot alter human nature, offers, "I think you can do even better than that — you can ignore it."
The ballet itself is one of the greatest sequences in all of film. The structure of the script already set the film apart from all musicals made before it (and most made since), but the actual depiction of the ballet sets the standard for great film musicals even as it sets itself up as the permanent king. The ballet starts normally enough, with shots of the dancers doing their thing on-stage. But when Vicky's character sees the red shoes in a window, suddenly everything changes: Powell uses optical printing to show her character imagining wearing and dancing in the shoes. From there Powell unloads technique after technique that sets the ballet apart. He leaps into Vicky's perspective, at which point the audience shrinks fades into near darkness. The shadow of the male lead is revealed with flashes of light to be both Craster and Lermontov, the two men who struggle for her affections. That same lead also drifts in and out of existence, occasionally present but often represented only by his clothes, which still dance. Powell mixes traditional stage performance with the freedom and possibility of film, and the result is a phantasmagoric burst of euphoria. When Vicky's breathtaking performance ends, Powell plays the audience applause in the audio track but presents us with Vicky looking out not into a crowd but a roaring ocean.
Matthew Dessem notes in his review of the film for his excellent blog "The Criterion Contraption" that the structure of the ballet, and filming it from within Vicky's perspective, informed the boxing scenes in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. I would go one step further and say that Scorsese -- who helped restore Powell's reputation after the disastrous reception of Peeping Tom sidelined Powell's career for decades, is largely responsible for the preservation and restoration of the director's films (let's hope the recent restored versions and Blu-Rays of this and Black Narcissus make their way across the pond soon) and even introduced Powell to his last wife -- draws upon this one sequence for his very best work. At the top of his game, Scorsese dives into the POV of his protagonists, from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to GoodFellas; the subjective POV of The Red Shoes practically lays out a blueprint for Scorsese's career.
That subjectivity allows us to see Vicky's true desires. Faced with the choice between the man who can further her career on the one who can counter and foster her creativity, she chooses the latter, but when Lermontov begs her to return (without Julian, of course), the red shoes cast as much of a spell on her as they do on the character in Andersen's story. The end is shocking and heartbreaking, yes, but unavoidable; in this world -- in Powell and Pressburger's world, perhaps -- one must always choose art over human distractions.