It may surprise you to learn that The Red Shoes is Martin Scorsese’s third-favorite movie of all time.
It surprised me when I watched the extended commentary version on the Criterion Channel last night.
The Red Shoes is the most famous of the brilliant cinematic collaborations between Emeric Pressburger and the enigmatic Michael Powell. It’s about ballet. But calling The Red Shoes a ballet movie is a bit like calling Anna Karenina a romance novel.
What it is mostly is a movie about the subjective experience of the artist.
Ballet is a good vehicle for this because of all the many types of art, it is ballet, perhaps, that calls for the greatest personal sacrifice.
Of course, all such jabber about artists and self-sacrifice inevitably raises the somewhat pretentious question: What is art?
Is it a commodity? Something you hang on a wall or, if it’s an NFT (nonfungible token), display on a flatscreen TV or in your own little blockchain-powered corner of the Cryptovoxels virtual world? Is it a powerful urge to express yourself or a more nuanced yearning to communicate? Must you bleed to create, or is art something effortless that happens like beads of sweat whenever you expend a little energy?
Alas. Nobody knows the answers to those questions.
Wouldn’t it be fun to dig up the corpses, say, of Van Gogh and Reubens, sit them in chairs, and have Oprah interrogate them?
So anyway, The Red Shoes.
Impresario Boris Lermontov—based upon Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev—creates a ballet for a luminous young ballerina called Victoria Page. The ballet is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story The Red Shoes (which is quite the grotesque, sinister story if you get right down to it. In the days before helicopter parents, children loved grotesque, sinister stories.)
Vicky is a huge success in the role, but she falls in love with the man who composed the ballet’s score. “The dancer that relies on the comfort of human love will never be a great dancer,” Lermontov hisses, and fires them both.
Vicky lives to dance, so when Lermontov asks her back, she comes.
On the eve of her first reprise of The Red Shoes ballet, the husband composer shows up too, fights with Lermontov, renounces Vicky and storms off—sadly, of course.
Then Vicky either throws herself off an atmospheric staircase onto the path of an oncoming train (nice to see you again, Anna Karenina!) or the shoes dance her to her doom.
Depending upon which direction you let your imagination lead you.
As Vicky lies dying in the husband composer’s arms, she whispers, “Take off the red shoes!”
The film was released in 1948 when Britain was still reeling from World War II and the reparations parsimonious Harry Truman insisted upon imposing even as torrents of Marshall Plan money were soothing war-torn Europe.
I want to say The Red Shoes was one of the first Technicolor movies filmed in the UK, but I don’t know if that’s true.
What I do know is that nothing like the Technicolor in that movie had been seen before on the silver screen—or has been seen since. The colors are saturated. The film is drenched. This was a full 50 years before computers made saturating color EZ/peasy, mind you, so this accomplishment, achieved solely through lighting and art direction, is a tour de force.
The saturated colors are matched by a certain feverish melodrama throughout—although the words “feverish melodrama” make the film sound almost camp, which it decidedly is not. It’s that undertone of feverish melodrama, after all, that makes Daphne DuMaurier a greater writer than Philip Roth, no matter what the Iowa Writers Workshop tries to tell you.
That scene where Lermontov first summons Vicky? And she dons this amazing topaz-colored dress? And begins to mount this deserted, impossibly high set of stone steps, completely overgrown with weeds?
Don’t all meetings with Destiny begin with a climb up a set of stone steps overgrown with weeds?
The most amazing part of the film, though, is the 17-minute ballet sequence.
Moira Shearer, who played Vicky and who was interviewed at length for this commentary, absolutely hated the ballet sequence. “Dancing is nothing like that! And you could never stage this as a real ballet!”
But "real ballet" isn’t really what this film is about, is it?
The ballet within the film is a parable about the other parts of the narrative.
The shoemaker, danced by the great Léonide Massine—who’d once partnered Pavlova and been Diaghilev’s lover—is Lermontov’s stand-in. An uninspiring Australian dancer stands in for the equally uninspiring composer.
The sets are things of unearthly beauty:
As the girl outdances everyone else in her world, the other dancers turn into sheets of colored cellophane and float down to the floor.
The craziest scene, though, is when the girl dances with a sheet of floating newspaper in the half light of earliest dawn:
Shades of Andre Breton, right?
In time, the girl wants to take off the red shoes.
But you can never take off the red shoes.
Anyway, after I descended from the heights of The Red Shoes, I found myself in a world filled with social media, political polarizations, virtue-signaling, ridiculous upgrades, ridiculous people.
You can’t take off from that world either.
I’d much rather put on the red shoes.