In 1947, the British people were tired. They had spent the years 1939 to 1945 getting bombed. There were shortages, food rationing, and a long list of casualties. 383,600 soldiers and 75,000 civilians were dead. During the course of the war, the United States Navy had surpassed the British Navy. Britannia no longer ruled the waves, and the British Empire was falling apart. Nevertheless, the British working class had a vision of a better world, throwing Churchill out of office in 1945 and electing a social democratic government under Clement Attlee. In 1948, they established the National Health Service. There was never a better time for a movie like The Red Shoes. A romance filmed in Monaco and the South of France in glorious technicolor, it had an international cast, an elite ballerina with flaming red hair, and a 15 minute dance sequence that not only brought high culture to the working class masses, but almost managed to create a new art form, cinematic ballet. The Red Shoes was an opportunity to get out of damp, rainy London. For the price of a movie ticket you could bask in the Mediterranean sun.
While the idea of a “social democratic cinema” might not have the same glamor as “communist cinema,” and while very few people speak of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the same breath as Sergei Eisenstein, it’s interesting to contemplate The Red Shoes in the context of the ascension of the British Labor Party. Powell and Pressburger were by no means leftist filmmakers, but there is a political undercurrent to their seemingly apolitical romance that drives it to its shocking, and tragic end. The film opens with what seems like the threat of a riot. Two police officers are desperately trying to keep a door bolted against an angry mob. Only when another man says “let them in” do we realize that we are at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House, and that the angry mob is made up of students with cheap tickets to the Lermontov Ballet, anxious to jockey for a space in the gallery. When the music starts, one of the students, a young man named Julian Craster, recognizes his own work. Craster’s professor, also one of the assistant conductors, had plagiarized one of his assignments.
While the French New Wave would not release its first movie for another decade, Michael Powell is far from a traditional, stodgy director. His camera is fluid and graceful, deftly panning from the cheap seats to the luxury boxes below. An obviously wealthy old woman looks through a pair of opera glasses, not at the performance, but at another box, trying to get a glimpse, not at the dancers, but of Boris Lermontov, the ballet’s director, a fictionalized representation of Sergei Diaghilev. Lady Neston, the old woman, wants to invite Lermontov to a party, not for herself but for Vicki Page, her beautiful young niece, a talented dancer played by real life ballerina Moira Shearer. While the renowned Lermontov, a famous ballet director who can make or break careers with a signature or the nod of a head goes more out of social obligation than out of any desire to attend yet another party, learns that Lady Nestor is planning to stage a performance of her niece, he indignantly leaves the party and ducks into the adjoining bar. There he is met by Vicki Page herself, who has decided to make her move and charms Lermontov into giving her an audition.
“Why do you want to dance?” he says.
“Why do you want to live?” she responds.
The next day in his office, Lermontov is confronted by Julian Caster, who angrily accuses the Lermontov Ballet of stealing his work. Boris Lermontov, who recognizes how star struck the young man really is, admits that one of his assistant directors plagiarized Caster’s work and as compensation offers him a job. Julian Caster offers no more resistance than a blogger at Jacobin who’s spent years denouncing capitalism and calling for a socialist revolution would to the offer of a position at the New York Times. “Go get some breakfast and then meet me on stage,” Lermontov says to the young man, so overjoyed at the offer the he trips over his feet on the way out. On the way to his first rehearsal, Caster meets, not only Vicki, his fellow new hire, but a crowd of dancers, writers, musicians, all hilariously eccentric bohemians I couldn’t imagine not wanting to hang out if I had the opportunity. When Lermontov shows up for the rehearsal, he’s distant and cold. At first, Caster and Vicki are dismayed. Soon they realize that Boris Lermontov is a dick to all of his performers, and that it’s a good sign. They’re in. They’re part of the gang.
Vicki and Caster, however, who Lermontov immediately recognized as potential geniuses, are more than just part of the Lermontov Ballet. They’re future stars, especially Vicki, who, in spite of her aristocratic background, is polite and gracious to everybody. She even handles catcalling with wit and aplomb, turning and smiling at a working class man who says “wow what a corker” as she walks by. Indeed, for Lermontov, who’s played by Anton Walbrook an incredible Anglo German actor I cannot believe I waited to the age of 54 to discover, sees Vicki as part of the working class, the artistic working class, but an outsider who will revitalize his work. One afternoon he follows her to a small, amateur community theater where she’s starting in a performance of Swan Lake. In spite of the clumsiness of the production, she dances with so much joy and youthful vitality that Lermontov, even though he’s probably gay, falls passionately in love with her. He’s found his next star ballerina, the new Anna Pavlova.
Lermontov also recognizes that Julian Caster is a genius, who can compose a new score in a matter of a few days. He shows Caster an old Fairy Tale by Hans Christian Anderson, a grim little story called The Red Shoes, about a peasant girl who puts on a magical pair of red shoes that represent the passionate, Dionysian side of artistic creation. The story ends tragically. The young girl, who can’t stop dancing as long as she’s wearing the red shoes, ends up dancing herself to her death, but Lermontov, a suave, middle-aged Apollo to Vicki’s young Dionysus, believes he can give the story a happy ending, sublimate Vicki’s youthful sexuality in a sublime work of art.
He succeeds. The dance number in the middle of The Red Shoes goes on for almost 20 minutes. In 1947, any London shop girl could have dragged her boyfriend into a movie theater for the price of two tickets attended an technically innovative performance of the ballet starring a Moira Shearer, a star dancer, and an elite cast from all over Russia and Western Europe. This is social democratic art at its finest, high culture brought to the masses. What’s more, it’s revolutionary cinema. While there had been major Hollywood films, like the Adventures of Robin Hood, filmed in technicolor Michael Powell was probably the first directory to master the use of color as a cinematic art form. Red, green, purple, bright blue, the stark, black and white years of being bombed by the Nazis are a thing of the past. Watching the dance sequence in The Red Shoes feels a bit like going back in time and watching Michelangelo or Titian mix the colors on his palette and brush them onto the canvas. It’s not only first rate ballet. It’s cinematic ballet, a gloriously bright, sun drenched painting coming alive right in front of her eyes.
Indeed, you could probably write a PHD thesis on The Red Shoes and Powell’s use of color. We are no longer in grey, post-industrial England, or even in the real south of France, but rather transported back to some medieval festival. After her performance, we see Vicki in a bright new cloak, her red hair, representing passion and sexuality, falling down onto the green velvet, which represents life. Sadly, neither of the film’s leading men are worthy of her. Caster, a rather ordinary looking red headed Englishman who we almost always see in a drab business suit wants marriage and a family. Lermontov, who at first dresses in bright colors, complex patterns, and who initially comes off almost as a Renaissance poet, Shakespeare or Marlow, now begins to dress in black. He puts on sunglasses and carries a cane. The more he becomes obsessed with Vicki, who he could probably have sexually if he had the courage to make a move, the more he seems to want to shut out those bright, Mediterranean colors he had conjured up to life. He can neither bear to look at his beautiful creation, nor let her go — she falls in love with the plane Caster and accepts his marriage proposal — and allow her to lead her own life. As the film proceeds he is transformed from a creative, liberating force into the oppressor, determined to destroy the careers of the two young people he discovered. He is now the Oedipal father figure who must be overcome if his children are to go on to life and happiness.
(Sadly, Julian, who’s supposed to be in his early 20s, is played by an actor pushing 40, a casting decision that tends to mute the generation conflict inherent in the script.)
Julian, however, who might be said to represent the British working class, is no revolutionary. A musical genius, he can create within the elite but he cannot destroy the elite. He cannot liberate Vicki from Lermontov’s control. Lermontov’s behavior, and the film’s tragic, over the top ending have both baffled critics, but it’s clear that Vicki cannot resolve the contradiction between her own revolutionary passion and the bourgeois high culture represented by Boris Lermontov, who cannot declare his love for the beautiful young woman he discovered, and for whom desire has turned into the desire for control. Vicki fate will be determined, not by any conscious decision on her part, or by the two men who both love her in their inadequate way, but by the uncontrollable revolutionary passion in the “red” — and we all know what that color stands for — shoes.