in Criterion Month

The Red Shoes (1948)

Watching The Red Shoes was like going to school. Like the kind of the film, I’d watch in a class, taking notes, looking for symbolism. This isn’t a film you watch with one hand thrust into a bucket of popcorn and the other a bag of pork rinds—George H.W. Bush’s favorite snack! This is a film you watch with focus, stroking your chin, noticing the small details within the big picture.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with an academic film going experience. Quite the contrary. The Red Shoes shows a remarkable progression in both art and storytelling. This is a British film from the ‘40s in full color with articulately choreographed dance sequences, powerful music, edited with the precision of yes… an archer. This is The Red Shoes.

Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger aka “The Archers” The Red Shoes is simple on the surface. Vicky (Moira Shearer) is an aspiring ballet dancer with everything to prove. Julian (Marius Goring) is a struggling composer coming off one of his works being plagiarized by a former professor for a hit ballet. Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a greedy and obsessive financier of ballets–“impresario” is the fancy term–who hires the other two for a new ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale “The Red Shows.” The show is a hit but not without taking a toll on Vicky, even further tortured by an ensuing love triangle with Julian and Lermontov.

As you can guess the folktale and Vicky’s story begin to parallel each other. In the tale, a woman is given shoes by a mad shoemaker that makes her unable to do anything but dance, until a rather unfortunate resolution. I won’t give it away but I’m sure you can figure it out. It’s an edgy plot for a film during the Golden Age of Cinema. Though I do find more than a few of the character interactions melodramatic and bordering on soap opera. There is something about this film that makes it a must-see for all cinephiles.

I’m talking about the film’s ballet sequences. Moves with the precision of a flexible angel against watercolor backdrops, post-modern stage design, and a soaring soundtrack. This is stuff that borders on 2001: A Space Odyssey shit… And this was 1948! What a bold, artistic, foray into the beauty of dance and the madness that consumes those that give themselves to it. The three leads all give marvelous performances by Moira Shearer steals the show. Her ability to express herself as she spirals in obsession is captivating. Not to mention she is an impeccable dancer.

I’ve heard film writers discuss The Red Shoes influence and impact on musicals. Like if we didn’t have The Red Shoes we may not have the big stage musicals of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. As if this film set a template for the blending of stage and screen. Which I can understand in a way. Though it is confusing considering this film isn’t a fun romp like all the musicals that followed across the pond. This is serious shit.

I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t bored watching scenes in between the dancing or scenes that weren’t behind the stage. There is a stuffiness to a film about ballet. Not to mention it’s British. That being said the fact that a movie could take a subject I have almost no interest in (ballet) and make the ballet sequences my favorite part of the movie is quite the accomplishment.

I can already the music inside of me.