The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes tells two tales; that of a rising dancer who falls in love with a young composer, and another of the man who discovered her: a ballet impresario, obsessed with his art and willing to do anything to serve this entity which has since become his religion. The pair of stories seemed to me contrasting albeit complementary, and after having heard much about the film, I looked forward to seeing them come to life.

Right from the onset, I received from the remarkable team of Powell & Pressburger their celebrated trademark: the divine use of colour by Technicolor which was, as it always is, divine. As the film wore on however, I began to become —dare I say it— increasingly disillusioned. And when The Red Shoes finally plodded to its longed-for conclusion, I found myself completely mystified as to why it has been hailed a classic for the ages. Why it has been so revered and so adored I could not possibly say, and so I thought today, instead of going the usual route (singing the film in question to high heaven), I would attempt to explain why The Red Shoes is a good film, but hardly a great one.

Firstly, I understand that the ballet sequence was seen as quite an innovation at its time, and many believe that it has has since been imitated by many but surpassed by none. Frankly though, I felt the digression, rather than building up the tension, instead just ground it to a rather cumbersome halt. In the Black Swan for example, which I believe is often cited as being influenced by The Red Shoes, although the extended dance sequence seem on the surface to be quite separate and independent from the rest of the film, we at once discern that it is instrumental to both the development of plot and character. In the ‘black swan’ character we see reflected the dark side of Nina Sayers: thus the drama is not only heightened but unfolds rather poetically. The sequence of The Red Shoes however, seemed only to be there for the sake of giving us something spectacularly pretty to look at.

Every one of these scenes is indeed visually stunning, and there are certainly all sorts of influences one might notice, from expressionism to an almost surrealist style. Every trick in the cinematic book is used, so much so that I felt it almost detracted from the dancing itself. (Was it not Fred Astaire who said he would do the dancing, and not the camera?) Now I do not particularly begrudge a filmmaker using the tools at his disposal, but at the same time there is indeed such a thing as too much. Moreover, the rampant extravagance did not serve any purpose, nor do I feel it pertained at all to the the story of The Red Shoes or Victoria Page. Miss Page is a sweet (albeit a tad dull) and blameless young lady. For me, the fantastical elements do not make cinematic sense when contrasted with the relatively grounded tale of a relatively grounded ballet dancer.

Most importantly though, it is the juxtaposition of Victoria Page and the themes of The Red Shoes which I believe is the biggest flaw of the film. Andersen’s story is at heart a morality tale, warning of the dangers of vanity and obsession. The girl of the fairytale, once she puts on the red shoes which she so covets, is doomed to a tragic death. So why is the poor Miss Page, who is possibly the most well-adjusted fictional ballerina one could ever come across, driven to this same cruel fate?

The Red Shoes is commonly cited as one of the first films to deal with the idea of devotion to one’s art as virtually deadly, but I do not believe it dealt with this idea very effectively at all. We only know of Page’s devotion to her art because she talks about it, and never do we really see or feel that dancing is her life. It is only through those awfully talky scenes (not to mention rather contrived dialogue) with Lermontov that we hear of this. Furthermore, Victoria chose to walk away from greatness because she loved Craster more. So once again, I ask: why does her art kill her when she has a) done nothing wrong and b) is hardly dangerously obsessed with her art? I suppose one could argue that it is Lermontov who is the obsessed one, and that her death is his punishment.

Nevertheless, I still cannot quite get over the fundamental incompatibility of the central metaphor of Page and The Red Shoes. Had she been in inextricably linked to any other story I do not think I would have been quite as vexed. Yet, she is tied not to some kitchen sink drama but to a fairytale, the kind of story which by its very nature demands purpose and meaning. In order to instil his message, the writer of a fairytale incorporates sense into every crevice of his tale. Everything happens for a reason. On the contrary, the only reason for Page’s suicide seemed to be to allow for the recapitulation of story of The Red Shoes.

The final sequence, during which a spotlight circles on where Page would have danced had she lived, is undoubtedly a powerful image. Yet I’m afraid it only evoked in me the memory of others who similarly died during a show’s run. A famous name who comes to mind is Anna Pavlova, whose sad fate certainly exemplifies the idea as total devotion to art as dangerous. She caught pneumonia, and refused the surgery that would cure her because it would render her unable to dance for the rest of her life. She chose to die, rather than to stop dancing. Many others have also  suffered for their art. Perhaps this is the essential problem with The Red Shoes. We are so familiar with these ideas of ‘art as religion’ and ‘art as deadly’ because they are in actuality so searingly ubiquitous in real life. Consequently, when a similar story is told on celluloid, it pales (metaphorically, of course, —visually it is a Technicolor blowout) in comparison.

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28 Comments

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  1. Brave stuff Rachel, I hope that you are wearing your crash helmet!
    This was made in 1948, even before I was born… I think it has to be seen in the context of that time. I actually agree with much, if not most of what you say about it. I find the acting overplayed, and Marius Goring to be as camp as a row of tents. (So perhaps convincing in the role?)
    It is simply about appreciation of the cinematography of Jack Cardiff, the talents of the directorial team, and the oh-so sumptuous colour. The film script, and much of the acting, is probably best forgotten.
    It is worth noting that it was not that highly praised at the time it was released. The fame and adoration has come in more recent times; and I agree, it is a little excessive.
    I would much sooner watch the same team’s work in ‘Black Narcissus’.
    Very best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks for the moral support Pete! I completely agree with your remarks about the writing and the script. Personally, I can usually stand the most intensely saccharine melodrama providing the film has either good writing or a group of good actors (preferably both of course). Frankly, The Red Shoes largely had neither. As the film drew to its close, both departments seemed in fact to get worse! (I believe I literally found myself shuddering in embarrassment.)

      Thank you also for reminding me to see Black Narcissus again. That is indeed a great film, and one I look forward to revisiting soon.

      1. Whatever we all say Rachel, we must give credit to Jack Cardiff, probably one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, and British into the bargain!
        Enjoy ‘Black Narcissus’, with my Internet blessing!
        Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

  2. I remember when I saw this film. It was after seeing Black Swan and before seeing Black Narcissus. I didn’t want to review two ballet films in a row. While certain aspects of it were indeed marvelous, a lot of this film was humdrum.

    But worthy of note I wrote a piece called Do You Wanna Dance. I started with The Beach Boys, which fed into the film about ballet called The Company and then ended with some terrific art about ballerinas by the Chinese artist Guan Zeju.

    My point is that I didn’t reference The Red Shoes. Even if it was advanced for its time, I don’t think The Red Shoes has aged well.

    Buyt thanks for your well reasoned and well stated review.

    1. Thanks Mike, it really is comforting to hear that I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed in The Red Shoes. Undoubtedly it was full of innovation at the time of its release, but today this is let down by the weaker aspects of the film. Your piece sounds very interesting – I look forward to reading it soon when I have the time!

  3. Thanks Rachel. Good to see someone taking on consensus! RS always seemed too willed a film for me only somewhat redeemed by the cinematography. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

    1. Thank you Thom for the encouragement! I enjoyed your recent piece ‘Muhammad Ali : The Supporting Cast’ immensely – you are certainly a fantastic storyteller.

  4. Rachel, I have found your reviews so so impressive,so engrossing, so full of depth, that I have been compiled to rush our and find a movie (that I wouldn’t consider before) to watch. That is a magic you create for me in your reviews. But by that very same token, now I wouldn’t consider watching The Red Shoes (even on a bet), so powerful is your review. Being an old guy, this movie at best would have been a movie I was forced to view because of the person I was with, smiling now it has become a “no way in hell” kinda of movie. Take care, Bill

    1. Thank you so much Bill for your lovely comment once again! I am always so very flattered that my reviews can have such a profound impact, and always I am thrilled to hear that you all are enjoying my writing. You take care too, Rachel

  5. Rachel–
    I totally disagree with about 95% of your intense hatred/dismissal of this truly great film. Was there ANYTHING at all that you didn’t despise? Not even one redeeming quality? Are you just pompous or perverse or what? Do you fancy yourself to be a Provocateur? It’s not difficult to smart-ass, ridicule and tear-down a classic film–especially if it’s highly revered…
    BTW I just discovered this site, and it’s AOK! AL
    (Oh, and BILL–your fatuous remarks are truly amazing…)

    1. Hello AL,

      Certainly there were redeeming qualities of The Red Shoes (the stunning cinematography of Cardiff is plain to see, and Walbrook’s characterisation of Lermontov I found fascinatingly menacing and one of the highlights of the film). However, these have been commented on time and time again by many various people, so much so that I thought chiming in myself was almost superfluous (not to mention I didn’t want to bore you all with a 2000 word article). If you absolutely insist I am sure I could scrape up another essay on my notes on the strengths of The Red Shoes, for there are certainly flashes of brilliance also from time to time.

      In writing this article, I wanted neither to be ‘pompous’ nor ‘perverse’, but to merely offer a new perspective on The Red Shoes. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone speak badly about it, and I genuinely find this rather surprising for I personally see several obvious flaws in it. There is certainly no reason for you to harass me or any other reader.

      P.S. I would certainly be interested in hearing your opinion as to why The Red Shoes is a great film.

  6. An interesting take on THE RED SHOES and I think that, if he were alive, Michael Powell would have enjoyed reading it. Judging from the first autobiography he wrote, he always embraced different views on film (hey, it’s art…and art isn’t easy). THE RED SHOW is not my favorite Archers film–I prefer BLACK NARCISSUS, A MATTER OF LIFE & DEATH, and I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING. But it’s always intriguing and certainly generates discussion as shown here.

    1. Thank you Rick, I do consider this a lovely compliment. Powell was an exceptional artist, and his other films I have seen so far (Narcisssus, Life & Death. and Colonal Blimp) I have genuinely loved. I think this was perhaps another problem – I just had such high expectations for The Red Shoes, having been told that it was the very best of them all.

  7. I love this movie and the people who made it, and maybe because I have a few years head start on you……. I get it.
    I’m not annoyed….. film, like everything else in life is subjective, I’m just sad that it does not move you the way it moved me.
    Terry

    1. Thank you Terry. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed too that I don’t quite ‘see’ exactly what about the film has captured you and so many generations – I just keep wondering if I’m being a little dense and have missed something crucial. I am sure I’ll definitely revisit this film some time in the future.

      1. You don’t have to love everything….. there are no rules to this. I often try to convince people to watch ‘old’ movies, especially black and white movies…..then I get really brave and recommend silent movies….. the problem is that my ‘recommendation’ takes too long because modern movie goers are used to a certain style and older movies [this one as well] were made at a different time, and it really helps if we can understand a bit about the era that a movie was made in. One of my son’s friends is inexplicably ‘into’ 1970s movies…. I’m very pleased because this was my time…. when I first started to get interested in film…. there is no way he can appreciate what it was like to be twenty something in that amazing time, but he loves the movies anyway…… I can tell that you have a deep appreciation of film and filmmaking and you NEVER have to explain why you do or don’t like any film [unless you enjoy doing so, of course]. The Powell and Pressburger movies you mentioned are also my favourites as well, but I admire this movie for many reasons….. and they don’t have to be yours. We fall in love with certain movies for all sorts of reasons….. I asked my wife to marry me in the intermission at ‘Ryan’s Daughter’…. she said yes! I got an ‘A’ in Film appreciation for a review I wrote on ‘Kelly’s Heroes’.
        Enjoy what you enjoy….. it really does not matter what anyone else thinks…… unless it does.
        Be well.
        Terry

      2. Your words are very true Terry. You are right in saying that I do immensely enjoy finding out exactly why I feel about a film the way I do; if I did not then this site would not be here. A certain love for deep analysis perhaps causes me to forget occasionally that film is both an art of the mind and of the senses. Some things cannot be explained by logic alone.

        Also, thank you for sharing your movie memories.

    1. No, not yet. However, I think almost every film I have reviewed on this site is pretty much a ‘must-see’. Despite not particularly loving ‘The Red Shoes’ myself, I would still say that it is a film that people should see if given the chance.

  8. I was completely swept up by this film the first time I saw it. But the experience has deteriorated for me on subsequent viewings where other Powell & Pressburger films only grow richer. Which is kind of unfortunate because it’s a film I really want to be great, and I may have delusions of re-convincing myself of that fact in the future.

  9. OUch, but I don’t disagree 100%. This film is so visually compelling and beautiful, but if you start to really think about it, the whole thing falls about. Suspend disbelief at the door and just sit back and take a visual trip. Very interesting and well done personal review.

    1. You’re very kind :) Yes, see Papillon if you get the chance for it is well worth a watch. I hope you drop by soon again – let me know if you’ve enjoyed the film!

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