"I can't even remember my first entrance," says the up-and-coming ballerina Victoria Page to Lermontov just before she is to dance "The Red Shoes ballet." "You think you can't remember it," the impresario says. He hums the tune she will dance to; she smiles, her fear gone. "Music is all that matters," Lermontov tells her, "nothing but the music." And for a time Vicky (played by the luminous Moira Shearer in her film debut) accepts Lermontov's view. Dance will be her life -- until she falls in love.
"The Red Shoes" is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of a selfish girl who tricks her step-mother into getting her a pair of red shoes which she wears everywhere including in church. She attends a party and begins to dance, only to have the shoes take over; she cannot stop dancing, even after she dies.
The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger 1948 masterpiece has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and is now in limited release. If it weren't for a string of successful pictures made during and after the war (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Black Narcissus (1947), Powell-Pressburger would never have gotten backing for such an "artsy" production. Powell was adamant in his determination to transform Pressburger's original screenplay, written in the 30s, into a film that would wake up the country to the importance of art. In his autobiography "A Life in Movies," Powell writes: "...this was a deliberate attempt on my part to lift storytelling onto a different level and leave naturalism behind." Art, for Powell, was "something worth dying for."
That brings us to the dying-for-art business, and the complex and mesmerizing impresario Boris Lermontov, played with charismatic insistence by Anton Walbrook. He, himself, lives for art, and he expects his dance troupe to follow. At the beginning of the film his prima ballerina has just married. Though she is at the height of her powers, she is dismissed by Lermontov. End of story. No exceptions, even for someone who cannot be replaced. With the arrival of Vicky Page, Lermontov recognizes a kindred spirit, one who lives to dance. Later, after their initial triumphs, he will betray his own moral code. But this only occurs after Vicky herself is attracted to Julian Craster (played by Marius Goring), the young composer of the Red Shoes ballet.
Of course the centerpiece of the film is the ballet itself, a twenty minute tour de force of moviemaking that had never been experienced before. Or since. We begin with a standard performance: conductor and orchestra, audience, dancers. But almost immediately, like the original fairytale, the performance becomes cinematically magical. Powell puts it best: "There would be no shots of audiences arriving, leaving, gaping, applauding...we were the audience, we who made the film."
The ending was quite controversial at the time --and still is to some content. At least for those who insist on happy endings. We might think that the age-old triangle of two men in love with the same woman will be resolved one way or the other. But no. For one thing, it follows Andersen's ending. But more importantly, Powell says, the ending is "the conflict between romance and realism, between theatre and life."
Music is all that matters.