Powell & Pressburger: The Red Shoes | Criterion - featured image (2022)
Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948) | courtesy of Criterion

Powell & Pressburger’s Radical and Ravishing ‘The Red Shoes’ Performs the Dark Side of Devotion

Powell & Pressburger’s film version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” asks, is Art worth dying for?

The Red Shoes
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
14 December 2021

Prepare for the heady delights of The Red Shoes (1948), a Technicolor fairy-tale melodrama from the imaginations of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Criterion last released this film on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010, and now it’s refurbished for a UHD/Blu-ray combo.

When British director Powell met screenwriter Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who’d fled Nazi Germany, they felt such artistic sympathy that they formed their own production company, The Archers, marked by a logo of an arrow shooting a bull’s-eye target. That arrow marked the spot of one of the most aesthetically exhilarating collaborations in film history, for their films combine intelligence and wit with eye-catching and exuberantly visual devices.

Their films sign themselves with the credit “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”, though it was generally understood that Powell directed while Pressburger did most of the writing and producing. Their projects sometimes feel cozily British and sometimes dashingly Continental. They flout the English prejudice against calling attention to oneself and any such brazen vulgarity. The Archers delight in calling attention to themselves, and that’s another area where they hit the bull’s eye.

The Red Shoes was their most colossal success, especially in the US, where it became the first British film to surpass five million dollars at the box office. Its five Oscar nominations included Best Picture. Unsurprisingly, it carried home the trophies for Brian Easdale’s original score and the art direction of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson.

Martin Scorsese has often discussed the film’s impact on him, and bits of that are repeated in the background material here. He says that Powell told him the film was about how art is worth dying for. If so, it conveys that message in a most ambiguous manner, and it’s just as well.

The Red Shoes opens with a sequence shot at Covent Garden. Many of the film’s scenes will be shot on location in real theatrical venues in London and Monte Carlo, taking advantage of their atmosphere for almost documentary-like evocations of the theatre world. The first scene shows students frantically rushing for the cheap seats in the balcony in order to witness a new ballet. Their somewhat un-British enthusiasm resembles bobby-soxers preparing to swoon at Frank Sinatra.

Introduced in this scene is aspiring composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the closest thing the film has to a hero and its least interesting character. We’re teased by glimpses of the true main character concealed behind a curtain like the puppet-master he is, but he won’t be fleshed out until the next sequence, which also introduces the film’s ingenue.

The main character and anti-hero is impresario Boris Lermontov, played with hauteur by Anton Walbrook. Lermontov may be named after a Russian novelist, but audiences knew he was largely inspired by Serge Diaghilev, notorious founder of the Ballets Russes. As film scholar Ian Christie’s excellent commentary points out, Lermontov also channels wheeler-dealer mogul Alexander Korda, whom Powell & Pressburger knew personally. This is among the film’s many parallels between ballet and cinema, two worlds of artists collaborating on a vision bigger than any of them.

In her film debut, ballet star Moira Shearer plays Victoria Page, the aspiring young dancer whom Lermontov will mold into a star, just as he’ll allow Craster to shine as composer of a new ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes“.

“Dance you shall,” said he, “dance in your red shoes till you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up and you are a skeleton! Dance you shall, from door to door, and where proud and wicked children live you shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance—!”

– Hans Christian Andersen, “The Red Shoes” (1845)

Lermontov explains the scenario while fingering a sculpture of a decapitated foot (unwittingly relevant to Anderson’s story), and when asked what happens to the girl whose shoes won’t allow her to stop dancing, he explains off-handedly or off-footedly that she dies, of course. That was indeed Andersen’s world of fairy tales without happy endings, wrung from his own tortured soul.

While the film’s first hour and more pursues a mode of realism about the work of putting on a show, it’s realism applied to the creation of fantasy, and from the beginning we get hints of the cinematic artifice that will swirl into the tsunami of cinematic creativity vividly remembered by the film’s audience. We refer to the moment when this wisp of a backstage story comes to a halt for the lengthy showpiece of the ballet itself. This is what made the film famous.

Powell not only pulls out all stops for this scene, he forgets there are such things as stops. We’re plunged into a dazzling, surreal, ethereal imagining of a ballet scenario rather than anything that could possibly be seen on a stage. As virtually every cinematic device is applied to the visuals, the viewer is carried to a realm of glory unique to the film medium. Nothing like this sequence had been done before, and certainly never in delirious, eye-gouging Technicolor.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge the trail blazed by Busby Berkeley in conceiving the musical numbers for Warner Brothers’ backstage musicals of the 1930s. He understood that, although the story pretends a dance happens on a stage in front of a theatre audience, the true locale is the imagination, and therefore he used the camera and editing to create scenes impossible on a stage, inconceivable to such an audience. Working with the painted backgrounds of Heckroth and the photography of Jack Cardiff, Powell “stages” a similarly impossible suite of dreamlike movements that can exist only in cinema. We could stop there in discussing the film as a landmark in film, especially British film, but there’s at least one more element to discuss.

At this time, films about successful career women continually posed a dilemma for its heroines and then resolved it for them. The more successful the woman was, whether as an artist or in business or whatever, the more the scenario leaned on the question of having to choose between this success and what, according to these films, the woman really wanted. That is, independent women were forever shown chucking their meaningless worldly success in order to settle down with a husband, so they could become a “real woman”. This predictable resolution can be found in everything from The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) to another theatrically-themed film, All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950).

The Red Shoes does something different, and it’s still rather radical. It shows Victoria achieving that “happy ending” and not quite being satisfied. This is what the demonic master, who mirrors the demonic shoemaker in the ballet, shows her when Lermontov shouts with scorn of “being a faithful housewife with a horde of screaming children”, and when he challenges Craster to recognize that he expects this of his wife rather than what Craster expects for himself.

Earlier, Lermontov had been called a man with no heart, and he expressed his philosophy: “You can’t have it both ways. The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a dancer, never!” His choreographer Ljubov (Leonid Massine), who is something of his truth-telling fool, replies, “That’s all very fine, Boris, very pure and fine, but you can’t alter human nature.” His master’s answer: “No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.”

He lives by this rule himself, with no visible human relations as he works with an iron resolve to run the world’s greatest ballet. His “jealousy” of Victoria has no trace of sex because, as he says, he doesn’t care about her charms, only that he can train her for a greatness that, naturally, also reflects on himself. Perhaps this is the moment to observe that although several characters give off what we’d now call a coded “gay vibe”, The Red Shoes, of course, never acknowledges such a thing. It helps explain, however, why all Victoria’s professional relationships are so platonic.

As we were saying, the story confronts Victoria’s personal love with her professional desire, in which to dance is to live. And unlike all those happy-ending Hollywood movies, this film argues that there’s no way out, for at least two reasons. The most immediate social reason is that two warring factions for possession of her soul (and body) are men who each want her complete devotion. The more abstract reason is that an artistic gift is a form of possession that leaves you not in charge of yourself. Perhaps this demonstrates the impresario’s maxim that “the music is all that matters and nothing but the music”, but he too suffers from the insoluble problem of happiness in art, as the final scenes show. His desire for control is itself a fatal illness, like life.

For all the film’s over-the-top leaps (sometimes literal) into the metaphorical and fantastical stratosphere, this fable may be revealing, and like the best fables (such as Andersen’s), something a little too true for comfort. The drive for self-expression and art can surpass personal attachments and not necessarily leave you happy. Andersen himself achieved a dizzying worldwide success by pouring out his anguish in charming characters and, if we are to believe what we hear, it didn’t free him from his unhappy isolation. Still, art is a living, if it doesn’t kill you.

This Blu-ray retains the bonuses from Criterion’s 2010 release. The extras include Christie’s commentary (dating from a 1994 laserdisc), in which he weaves background details with interviews of Goring, Shearer, Cardiff, Easdale, and Scorsese. There’s a a making-of, an interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker, and a film of Heckroth’s storyboards, during which you can hear Jeremy Irons reading Andersen’s story. Irons also reads portions of Powell & Pressburger’s novelization.

RATING 10 / 10