The Red Shoes is a spectacular 1948 movie woven around Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale by the same title. It tells the story of a young, aspiring dancer taken in by a prestigious touring company. The director, who believes that one cannot love and be a great artist, makes it his mission to turn her into the greatest dancer of her generation. Unfortunately for her she falls in love with the company’s composer and is told to make the choice of her life: be a dancer or be with her husband.
The film is beautifully done in every way. The dance sequence of The Red Shoes ballet is one of the best dance sequences that exists on film. Watch it now, I’ll wait. It takes advantage of the medium to do dramatic costume changes without breaking the forward momentum of the piece. The lead’s covetous red shoes slip on her feet in a second and lace up of their own accord. This touch gives the shoes agency and power that would be much harder to do in a live presentation. Those shoes carry her through a joyous festival where she dances with vitality in an outpouring of youth and gaiety. As the festival ends, she finds she cannot stop dancing. She tries to go home, dancing over scattering fliers and discarded festival trash. At her doorstep she repeats some phrases, now imbued with fear instead of joy. We see the world from her perspective, whirling crazily, then flash to her wide, scared eyes. The shoes carry her through a dream-world where newspapers take human form to dance with her and elegant parties appear as a backdrop to her torment. Hauntingly, at the end she dances through her own memorial, collapsing at the priest’s feet. He slips the shoes off, and she dies calmly in his arms.
The Red Shoes is a story within a story. Over the course of the film it becomes clear that the lead’s life will parallel that of the poor girl she portrays in the ballet. This starts slowly, imperceptibly, when she meets the director of the company she will join at a party. He is a foil for Serge Diaghilev, the infamous director of the Ballet Russes. He asks her “why do you want to dance?” She replies with the question, “why do you want to live?” Taken aback, he responds. “I do not know exactly why, but I must.” “That’s my answer, too.” She says.
Over the course of the film she toils to become a great ballerina. Her journey is cut short when the director discovers her relationship with the company’s composer, and he fires them both rather than admit he is wrong about the combination of love and art. He insists that love is weakness and has no place in art. She resigns herself and takes leave with the composer, and marries him a short time after. Now here’s where it gets crazy: on a journey to see her mother in France, she happens to pass through old dancing stomping grounds and runs into the director. He convinces her to dance a re-staging of The Red Shoes. At the same time her husband’s first opera is premiering in London. As she’s getting ready to dance, her husband appears. He begs her to return with him and she counters with “wait until after the performance!” The director appears and insists she choose between love and art, which causes her to run and jump in front of an oncoming train. Her husband takes off her red toe shoes and she dies in his arms.
For those of you who have seen Black Swan with Natalie Portman, this will sound familiar. In that film the lead dancer drives herself into insanity to give the performance of her life. During the final ballet sequence of the movie she finally reaches a balance between her dark and light sides, but in the end she still dies. And it’s all worth it, for one singular performance. Although I love both films, I downright dislike the endings. The women are completely controlled by the male figures in the film beside them and behind the camera filming them. In Black Swan, for example, if Portman’s character lived, she would be able to give performance after performance, finally understanding how to access and use her whole self in her art. In The Red Shoes, why doesn’t the husband support his wife’s dancing? Why doesn’t anyone stand up to the director and politely note that he is full of shit? I don’t buy the interpretation that she died for her art; I think she died because she was presented with a choice with an excluded middle and it broke her. This is the saddest of all deaths.
The ballet is made ever more beautiful, and the story line ever more implausible, by the performance of Moira Shearer. She was a red-headed Scottish dancer who shared roles with the better-known Margo Fonteyn during the course of her career. Although she never attained the stage popularity of Fonteyn, she became an accomplished actress in addition to her distinguished ballet career. She also had a full family life that included four children and a loving husband. She clearly did not face the artificial choice placed on her character’s shoulders, which makes the movie’s choice to kill her all about creating the story-within-a-story symmetry and not because it made sense for the characters or the time. I actually thought the movie was going to end with her dying at the end of the titular ballet sequence, or over the course of the director shaping her into a great dancer, as I could easily see him working ballerinas to death or near it.
Still, watch the movie. Pay close attention to the dancing, and to the way it was captured on film. It is more than worth enduring the sub-par ending. The film has been, and continues to be, extremely influential: for example, the techniques used in the fight scenes of Raging Bull have been attributed to the titular ballet sequence. Watch it for the beauty of the film, for the talent of Moira Shearer, and for those delightful red shoes.