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.